The ride split nicely into three unique halves today. The first half was urban: hoody urban. Or at least I could have done with a hoody, as picking our way through the commuter traffic in the towns of the north of England was sweatlessly slow. Twice I was forced to use risky stealth micturition tactics. I felt criminally coerced.
Conversely, the second half was rural and crime-free. With a cheerful backdrop of grassy hills, and stone walls and bridges we climbed and rolled the ramps and slopes until the final pit stop, which heralded the extraneous third half. This final segment was characterized by the long low-gradient ascent of Shap Fell. I had built this up in my head—it being the highest pass of the ride, at around 400 metres. My expectations weren’t met—it was a drag, with ups, downs and two sets of traffic lights. Ascending into Penrith was fast and fun, despite some front derailleur trouble that made gear shift tricky. Fortunately I managed to get into the little ring in time for the unexpected hill that Penrith was mysteriously placed upon.
On arrival at the camp, which was several miles beyond Penrith in defiance of its billing, I fell asleep for about two hours. I didn’t so much wake up as recover, as one might come around after fainting, or from surgery, with pins and needles in my head and a lack of knowledge re my place in the world, in a couple of senses.
What did I need? More sleep? Water? Food? Alcohol? In the queue at the bar the man behind me (recently retired) said to the woman he was accompanying (same-ish age, not his wife), ‘what an idyllic park we are in’. I thought: ‘it’s just a bunch of trees and some grass, you cretinous hyperbolater!’
However, having now inhaled two pints and a half and three large courses, I am much more inclined to agree that the setting is idyllic. We are now more than half-way through, and I am finding it more and more difficult to be reasonable. I blame dehydration and sleep deprivation. I think I am doing a decent job of hiding it so far. I plan to go to bed immediately upon completing this journal, and drinking a further pint and a half.
I am not sure if I have mentioned this before, but the weather has been ludicrous. Every day has been sunny, with temperatures around 20 celsius. There has been no rain! The journey is apparently charmed. My face is browned and beardy, and my tan-lines, earned through the summer’s training, are sharp and proud. It’s a shame I’m basically mental though.
Mental. Yes. So much so that its feasible that it isn’t sunny. Or even that I’m not on a cycle. Hear: let me tell you something about cycling that you’ve always suspected but never confirmed. Consent, I beg of you, to confirm your suspicions. Cycling is not a sport.
It’s a sex thing.
That second-skin spandex; those hairless legs; the vaselined arses. The pain. it’s tantric BDSM. Definitely a sex thing.
Nobody really enjoys cycling 110 miles. Definitely not nine days consecutively anyway. It hurts, it’s uncomfortable, and even when you don’t push, even if you just coast along on minimal effort, you are a prisoner of your thoughts. For eight hours a day you have leg pain, arse pain, wrist pain, neck pain, hunger, and thoughts. All those terrible thoughts. It’s a sex thing!
Worst of all though: the music. On one training ride that I’ll, unfortunately, never forget, I had the same song stuck in my head for six hours. That’s bad enough, but the song was in Spanish. I don’t know the language, never mind the words. Torture like this, coupled with these outfits, can only be a sex thing.
What is the climax? I don’t know, but a man just fell over a few metres away from me. Tripped on the join in the mats. I thought, ‘it’s a shame he wasn’t carrying anything he could spill.’ This is who I’ve become (always been).
I did at least manage to eat dinner and behave like a sociable human earlier—I ate in the company of my main riding companion for the day (biology dictates that no companion is ever permanent). A very nice guy actually, who had been involved in setting up a well-known high-street chain of restaurants. He had just sold his way out, and was considering his next career move. He thought he might move to the Pyrenees, own some chalets, and cycle in the mountains. I am now considering opening my own chain of well-known high-street restaurants. If I can convince people to bring their own ingredients and cook their own food I could keep the overheads pretty low I reckon. I’m not sure what the target demographic is though. I almost said, ‘I am probably better off concentrating on getting my novel published,’ but then I remembered that even if that happened I probably wouldn’t be able to move to the Pyrenees.
Nope: the average novelist earns about £5k a year from their books. So looks like it’s going to be Scotland for the time being. And I’ll be there tomorrow. We ride from Penrith to the outskirts of my home city, Glasgow. I look forward to seeing Stephanie, who has promised to visit the campsite with nail clippers and fresh underwear.
I have also been thinking about Scottish independence, which has come up quite a few times during the ride. The referendum is in eight days. As I blogged previously, I think I will vote yes. But what do I think about Scotland? On the plus side are the countryside, whose mountains and farmers’ roads are alright with me (but do they compare with, say, the Pyrenees?), and Glasgow, with its excellent range of vegetarian restaurants, and the cheerful coincidence of a lifetime’s supply of friends in residence.
Negatively however: tartan, bagpipes, shortbread (okay it is nice), the Proclaimers, Scottish Football, sectarianism, illiberal drugs and licensing laws, the obsession with England’s 1966 world cup victory, the plethora of ugly housing schemes that surround the outskirts of Glasgow.
Basically, I think I hate the Scottish. But I think I like being Scottish. And this is all okay, because being Scottish is complicated, and this sort of alienated self-hatred is essentially normal. Yes, life in Scotland is nasty, poor, brutish and short. And who cares when you’ve got whisky?
Yes, whisky. The great equalizer. The Americans got Grand Canyon and the Skyscrapers, the Parisians got Style, the Italians got Food, and the Scots got Pissed on Distilled, Peated Barley in a field of Jaggies. Oh yes, visit Islay and you’ll immediately understand how illiterate peasants worked out how to make the most complex and pleasant elixir from dirt and cereal. In a landscape so barren, an environment so hostile, there are so few options, yet such a tremendous need, for intoxication.