You know when you’ve done something for the first time that you were nervous about doing, and then you wonder what you were ever nervous about? And then you wish you could go back and tell your nervous self how there’s no need to be nervous? That’s how I now feel about cycle touring. Just over a year ago, I completed a two-month adventure on my bike. On my own. And because it took me so long to build up the courage to do that, it’s time to share my story to encourage the courage in others.
I am a cyclist. I say that often. Cycling is my form of transport: my way to commute from A to B in the city I call my home. Every so often I might take my bike on a train to pedal the remainder of my journey that I don’t want to do by taxi or on foot. Because I’m an environmentalist; a cheapskate; and I’m always in a hurry. Cycling for me beats the car and public transport. It is my main exercise and my way to get more speedily around London. Until last year, though, it wasn’t really something to help me explore and see the world. But that has changed. And I’m never looking back.
When I was first introduced to cycle touring, I thought it sounded like a great idea. For those who were doing it. They were strong. They were brave and adventurous; jacking in their jobs for a life on the road. They would be safe on their own in the world. They could stay with strangers, sleep out in the middle of nowhere. They didn’t mind being sweaty all day and going for days without a shower. They were men.
But me? No, I couldn’t. I wouldn’t be strong enough. I wouldn’t be safe. I wouldn’t know what to do. I couldn’t be on my own for that amount of time. I just couldn’t do that.
I suppose you could say I’m quite risk averse. I’m pretty sensible. I’m a planner and a project manager so I can imagine everything that might go wrong. I’m also not a natural athlete and when it comes to physical challenges I tend to focus on what I’m not good at rather than what I am good at. I also love my everyday routine and creature comforts. So shaking things up, taking some risks, being adventurous, putting my body to the test and taking each day as it came was a massive shift for me. But when I finally found the courage to do all of that on a cycle tour, it released something in me that will never be still or silent again.
So, you’re maybe thinking: well, that takes lots of kit, lots of training, and definitely lots of planning. Wrong. Totally and utterly wrong. And one of the main reasons I didn’t do this for so long. I just thought I’d be really bad at it. And I was bad at it at first but then I just got better. I learned on the job – the only way you can. And this is just the beginning.
I embarked on this journey on my hybrid I commute around London on. I bought three bits of extra kit: a top tube bag to hold my phone and cycle maintenance essentials; a waterproof pannier (Decathlon own brand); and a hivis jacket to wear all day (I normally have a bib that I just put on at night). That didn’t really break the bank.
I normally cycle at least 20km a day and so I have a base level of fitness. But at the point of departure last year I had just been living in the Desert so hadn’t really cycled for nine months (stairs were at that point a bit of an issue, let alone all day exercising) and I had lost a stone in weight (all mainly muscle mass, so my legs were not up for the hills). I might as well have been a beginner.
I normally pride myself on being extremely organised. I reckon it’s probably my (highly exciting) USP. But I was doing this trip following six months of living in a refugee camp where the Saharawi way of life had momentarily turned me into someone very laid back. So, with nothing more than six 20km rides under my belt in the three weeks leading up to the trip (all of which had left me a little saddle sore), I got myself to Gatwick airport in the middle of the night with my bike and settled down for a little airport-chair sleep before my early morning flight.
My plan was to travel across Spain on my bike, starting in the North West and finishing in the South East nine weeks later, travelling a full Z of Spain, visiting all four corners and crossing through Madrid. I had three thousand kilometres to cover, with the knowledge that I could do as many of those as necessary on a train or a bus if I wanted to. My intended route took me to all the places in Spain (the country I consider my second home) that I had not been to before, or hadn’t seen for over twenty years. It included a (non-cycling) minibreak with a friend in Madrid and the surrounding towns. It had me arriving at my aunt’s house in South West Spain in time for a two-week rest with family in the middle of the trip (and the chance to watch all of Wimbledon, something that was a big part of my plans for a whole year off work!) as well as opportunities to visit friends in different parts of the Iberian peninsula whilst also practising my Spanish. Perfect.
I’d taken a laid back approach to my kit preparation and with an hour to go until check-in closed I realised I had forgotten to take my adjustable spanner to remove my pedals (a requirement when you put your bike on a plane) and the bike bag I had borrowed a few hours earlier was only going to take my bike with both wheels off (doubling the take-apart time). I had visions of turning up again at my friends’ house in London with my tail between my legs having fallen at the first hurdle. But turns out if you run around Gatwick long enough at 4am and chat to enough people who look like they might be able to help, you will eventually find an engineer with a more multi multitool than yours. Phew. And with some sweat and anxiety-induced speed, I got it all sorted and made the flight. Excellent start, Allen.
Once in Santiago de Compostela, I put my bike back together and tightened my pedals with my fingers. But with no battery on my phone and still not able to turn on my apparently easy-to-work battery pack, I headed out of the airport thinking there was no way I wouldn’t be able to follow my nose to Santiago city from Santiago airport. Unfortunately, with no other choice that I could see, I ended up on the hard shoulder of the motorway for the first half hour of my trip. I was gently nudged off there and onto an upcoming exit to a quieter route by the friendly Galician police. I was clearly very well prepared. I was clearly going to be excellent at this.
In Santiago, I found some accommodation for the night (my family couldn’t believe I hadn’t already organised somewhere to stay on my first night. Very un-Beccy-Allen) and so the journey began. By the next day I had a new adjustable spanner, was going against the hiking traffic on the Camino de Santiago (pushing my bike through streams at times) as I slowly got used to planning with Google Maps better and doing everything possible to save my phone battery across the day.
A few days later, I was pedalling up hills I would never even have dreamed I could tackle, marvelling at the views of breathtaking descents that I suddenly found exhilarating and not terrifying, jumping up and down in rural bus shelters to stay warm following roadside loo breaks, and cycling alone and free and so incredibly happy on what felt like the eerie Yorkshire Moors surrounded by the wind turbines of Northern Spain. I was getting used to fuelling for the journey, devouring Oreos on benches at the roadside, loving the cooling rain on my face and becoming an expert pannier packer. I was adapting to the three seasons in one day, the need for sugary fuel at the bottom of hills and the talking to myself out loud that was keeping my legs going. I was learning to engage my core more to keep the pressure off my bum and working out how to moisturise the sore bits in the evenings to maximise bum recovery for the next morning. I was relishing the opportunity to really get to know my body and its limits and push them a little bit. I was in tune with my breathing and my heart-rate and enjoying the time with my own thoughts and learning to be the very best company for myself.
And I was also spending every evening with inspiring and generally awesome people thanks to Warm Showers. (If you’ve not heard of this community yet, get on it. Like couch surfing for the cycling community but with much less partying and much more sleep and cycling prep pasta, 30+ rather than student hospitality and excellent bike chat). I stayed with 17 hosts across the trip and have nothing but excellent things to say about the whole experience. I have made new friends, been inspired to take on other cycle tours having heard so many stories and learned so much about myself from relying on the hospitality and kindness of complete strangers.
Across the two months I was away, I spent longer on my own than I ever had before. For so long, I had thought that doing something like this on my own would be dangerous and would make me feel lonely. So much so that I had spent ages just waiting to meet someone to go with. But the most wonderful thing about it was doing it on my own. The most empowering thing. The most exhilarating thing. And I never felt lonely because I was there with my favourite person: the person who encourages me the most, the person who believes in me the most, the person who understands me the most. And the more days I rode, the more ups and downs I encountered, the more ridiculous situations I got myself into (pushing my bike up vertical muddy tracks; pulling my bike through sandy tracks in fields; ending up in dead ends because I was convinced that the map wasn’t right), the happier I was on my own and the freer I felt to continue to do more things like this on my own in the future.
The pure and total independence, complete and utter self sufficiency, and self reliance was absolutely my favourite part of the trip. I love people. I do. I am an incredibly social and a people-loving person. (And I did really love the five days of the trip that I did spend cycling with a friend…and the mornings where I was accompanied by a friend’s dad and a guy I happened upon on the road). But oh my, do I love my own company now. Oh my, did I take it to a whole new level. And I really can’t envisage any other challenge I could set myself that would lead me to this level of faith in my self-reliance. When else are you ever totally self-reliant for hours on end? In my working and day-to-day life, so many things always depend on other people. But here I had days and days where it was just me. And, yes, I was really, really pleased to see people in the evenings and get to know them and hear their stories, but the confidence and power I got from that faith in myself and my abilities, is something so powerful, so life changing, that it can’t ever be put away. And it has fuelled my confidence in myself to be alone in so many other aspects of my life since I returned. There’s now very little I find scary about being a woman on her own. And I will forever be grateful for this trip that taught me that.
I can’t describe my favourite day of the trip as each was perfect in its way. And writing this isn’t about my journey: it’s about encouraging you to start yours. Because everyone who embarks on a cycle tour will have a different experience. And comparing notes is fun, but it can also be totally unhelpful.
For ages I didn’t write this blog because I thought what I’d done wasn’t much compared to most of the people I know who have done cycle touring. Who would want to read this when there are year-long adventures in far flung places that you can read about? But then I thought back to every moment of joy and jubilation across my tour. Comparisons are pointless. I achieved more than I had ever thought possible, for me. This was the perfect challenge, for me. My journey was my journey. It didn’t need to be longer or harder to make it worthwhile. It was my first challenge, my greatest challenge and my personal challenge and it inspired me to plan more for the future. And I had thought for so long that I couldn’t. If anyone wants to do this and they haven’t yet out of fear or too many ‘I couldn’ts’ or feelings that they need someone else to do this with, please take comfort in the things I have told you.
With a little bit of planning, one or two bits of extra kit and a desire to explore somewhere for a couple of days, a week or a month or more, you will achieve more than you ever thought possible and experience a hundred times more.
I learnt to take my bike apart in ten minutes. I had an accident and my only thought was fear that my bike wouldn’t be able to carry on. I fixed a puncture at the side of the road for the first time ever. I adapted to keep going through injury. I had a nervous energy nearly every morning for the first few weeks that I loved. I cycled longer distances than I thought possible for me in a day. I wholeheartedly embraced the fear of the unknown each day. I realised the only thing that has ever stopped me doing anything is a lack of belief in myself. I found out that I don’t have to be an incredible athlete to complete a feat of endurance. I just need to be strong of mind. I discovered that I am my best advocate, I am my best support system and I am my best mood lifter. There was never a moment I wanted to give up. Never a moment I wanted to get a lift. Never a moment that I wanted it to be easier or flatter or to go a bit quicker. Each and every challenge, hilarious debacle, moment of realising I had made a mistake, helped me learn more, be braver, be stronger and ultimately be more laid back.
It’s not about the numbers, but here they are, for this, my first cycle tour:
1 woman, 1 bike, 1 country. 2 months, 2000km by bike, 1000km on public transport. 2 falls. 2 punctures. 1 two-week family holiday. 13 autonomous communities. 17 Warm Showers hosts. 15 places on my must see list of Spain.
And I can’t sign off without just a handful of my top tips. Because I’m an expert now, right? So here you go:
1. Switch to Kamoot from Google Maps. When I did, it blew my mind. I didn’t pay for the app (cheapskate, remember) so I just used it without a voice telling me when to turn. Great for avoiding too much off-road if your bike isn’t really cut out for that. For other excellent tips of this sort, check out a very well written blog by the legend that is Tom Allen (no relation).
2. Take a nice pannier that can be a non-bike day-trip bag too. It was lovely taking a bus up the massive hill to the Covadonga lakes in the Picos de Europa and the massive hill to Ronda from Marbella.
3. Get a bike stand for your bike. I didn’t have one and having to haul my bike into a ditch to prop it up when stopping for a loo break at the side of the road can be very annoying. It will be one of the two pieces of additional kit I will get for my next trip.
4. I didn’t take a tent as it was my first trip. Next time, just try and stop me (this is the other piece of kit I’m buying). I do recommend Warm Showers and hostels for your first trip if you’re feeling tentative about the added kit and the added unknown but now I’ve done it once, I can’t imagine doing the next one without a tent so that I am not bound by any need to make it to the next town.
5. Ladies: don’t be afraid to stay with lone living men from Warm Showers. At first, I only stayed with couples and women, but as I got braver and my options became more limited in rural areas, gender became less of an issue and I’m so pleased I made the switch.
But my only real advice is this: don’t underestimate yourself. Ever. Never think you can’t. Always work out how you just might. If you love cycling and you think a solo cycle tour might be for you, plan a trip and just see what happens. I promise you, you will never look back.