Skip to main content
A Magazine for Sheffield

Cycling: Two years in London and I'm ready to come home

On a chilly Tuesday morning in late March, I found myself standing outside my front door, wearing lycra shorts on a council estate in north London. I had just pulled my door to, leaving my keys inside, the clicking of the Yale lock causing a mild panic attack. But this was a deliberate action, for at that moment I no longer lived there. I had no home. Coming from Sheffield, an honest city, the greenest in Europe, London had a corrosive effect on my opinion of people and my inclination to be kind. There is a numbing effect of being rattled in the gloom and fluorescent flicker of the Bakerloo line. The jostling and pushing of commuters twice a day teaches you that a human being is an obstacle to get past. After two years I decided to leave for the pleasant land of South Yorkshire, via Istanbul. Through some desire to escape I concocted a solo bicycle journey to the farthest corner of the continent and into Asia. I remember the floaty feeling when I booked a one-way ticket from Istanbul back to the UK, and the giddy excitement of handing in my notice far exceeded getting the job in the first place. I remember walking lighter after shredding my unfinished to-do list and leaving my office for the last time. But those memories were of little comfort to me as I set off in my lycra on a grey day, wondering why on earth I had decided this was a good idea. I am not a keen cyclist, and having never cycled 60 miles, which was my planned daily average distance, I was ill prepared. My route took me through Holland, the Mecca of cycling. The cyclist is revered in this country, the tarmac is immaculate and cars tiptoe round you. Even the hills prostrate themselves under your wheel. I rode up the Rhine in Germany and cut across to the Danube in Passau, following it downstream through Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Serbia, where I left the river to cut straight through Bulgaria and into Turkey. The challenge of cycle touring is not the distance but the loneliness of being on a bike for hours on end. The penultimate hour is the worst, when familiar demons make home inside your head. It was during this hour on my way to Mainz in Germany that my thoughts turned sour. The atmosphere was muggy and hot, almost tired, waiting for a storm to clear the air. I noticed the concrete that is ever present where humans deign to go, a symbol of humanity's lack of creativity, sapping my enthusiasm for travel. The same jaundiced drunk wanders here and even the optimism of young lovers becomes a parody of lovers everywhere, repeating the same pattern of impossible expectations, inevitably disappointed. It’s these low moments that give colour to the generosity of strangers. I used the Couch Surfing website to arrange accommodation along the way. This is a network of strangers wanting to meet real people when they travel and host travellers in their home. Of the 50 days I was on the journey, I spent five nights in a hotel. Every other evening I was meeting fellow travellers or hosts who showed me kindness. There are too many stories of generosity to tell, but not once did I leave a house without a feeling of gratitude. I was treated to boozy nights out in Bavarian beer halls and guided round sacred mosques at prayer time. Strangers stopped their cars to talk and give me food or local home-brewed liquor. This onslaught of kindness made me see the how fabulous the people of this world can be. And now I am back in this wonderful city as it hosts the greatest bicycle race on earth. If the Tour inspires you to hop on your bike, you can go anywhere. In Europe I met people cycling to South Africa, India, China and New Zealand. The hardest bit by far is closing your front door and making that first turn of your pedals. The rest is remarkably easy. And if, for whatever reason, you are unable to break free of the ties that bind you to this place, you can travel vicariously through the journey of others, you can host people echoing the tour. Warm Showers is a cycling specific version of Couchsurfing where you can offer exactly what a cycle tourer craves - a shower, food, some company and somewhere flat to lie down for the night. It is a chance to change someone’s life and pass on some joy from this, the happiest city in the UK. )

Next article in issue 76

More articles