Right in the middle of the petrol station forecourt was an old office desk and a plastic garden chair. I simultaneously collapsed, sighed, and slumped over the desk, like a jaded HR manager. I took a break from a day of cycling on the motorway hard shoulder. The thunder was crashing around me and the rain was relentless. Just as the last drop of despair fell from my bib shorts, a guy from the petrol station checked if I was ok, patted me on the back, and gave me six fresh figs. His kindness lifted my spirits no end. Despair followed by faith restoring random acts of kindness became a familiar and weirdly enjoyable theme.
Throughout my adult life, I must’ve consumed twenty industrial ovens worth of internet cookies through reading adventure articles. I’ve dribbled on glossy outdoor magazines, poured over stories of mammoth rides, and thumbed endlessly through social media thought vacuums. Vicariously experiencing the highs of putting yourself out there and chasing a challenge. I’d put the act of adventuring on a pedestal and convinced myself that it was something I needed to pursue a fulfilling life. This summer was the time to put my desire for exploring to the test. Although this started as self-indulgent biking holiday masked as a test of my appetite and competence for adventure, it turned into a car boot sale of high-quality kindness that affirmed all the desires I had for my own life outside of cycling. It started as a bike ride but turned into a, well it was still a bike ride, but it had thoughts and stuff.
The trip was a solo journey from Lyon, cycling 2500 km along the Mediterranean coast, down to sunny Athens. I’d given myself a month to complete it and added to the challenge by making it self-supported with no day by day route or accommodation plans. On the grand scheme of things, this was not the biggest adventure in the world, but to me, it was daunting enough.
The term emotional rollercoaster is a bit cliche. So I’ll describe the trip as an emotional pogo stick. Full of ups, downs, and indicative of a time full of poor decisions and questionable trends. Unfortunately, for the sake of writing this piece, my trip didn’t have a Hollywood story arc that bridged despair to triumph. It was less straightforward than that. There were great days of exhilaration and liberation followed by mornings of doubt and supermarket cheese aisle panics. I was never sure how each day would turn out, or which cheese best offered the creamy cocktail of value and taste. However, writing about the ride allows me to conveniently serve up the misery, move on to the obnoxiously profound sentiments, and tie things up with some conclusions.
The lows of adventuring
With the aforementioned story arc in mind, I’ll start with the downsides of the trip. The experiences that suggested I wasn’t cut out for this adventuring malarky. Magical revelations and life-affirming lessons will come later on.
The lows of my adventuring were like bad smells. Subtle smells that hint at some yet to be discovered problem. Not too dissimilar to the pranks where jokers hide a fish under the bonnet of your car so the smell secretly and stinkily wafts through the air vents. But, on this occasion, the joker hid stress and homesickness down my pants. The longer the trip went on, the more I realised that this could be a fundamental flaw in my plan for a life of adventures.
The initial waft of misery odour came the night before the first day of riding. I was lying in bed in Lyon, the start line of the ride, and I had a bit of a wobble/confidence crisis. It was forecast thunderstorms, I’d spotted a mechanical on the bike, and the scale of the ride was starting to sink in. I spent the best part of an hour looking at nearby airports and escape options. Lying awake in bed and feeling very anxious. My figurative cool adventure guy leather jacket was taken off and burned.
Incidents like this became regular occurrences. Particularly when I’d find myself spending nights full of reflection in weird and not so wonderful locations after a tough day riding through 30-degree heat. The overgrown grass yard outside a city centre church, behind a chicken coup in a suburban housing estate, in a house full of broken kitchen appliances and drawings scribbled on the wall, and plenty other places that were not my comfy bed. Each place was so uniquely bizarre. The only they had in common was their ability to provoke anxiety dreams* and make me question why I decided to do this trip.
* In case you were wondering, the dreams were normally about snakes, potential murderers, or how bad I smelt.
However, the ultimate confidence crisis lows reached a peak during, what will now be known as ‘Supermarket Saturday’ (actually a Thursday). A well-meaning friend sent me a photo of our local Lidl to assure me I wasn’t missing anything back home. As soon as I saw its beautiful glowing red, blue, and yellow typeface my heart began to sing. Checkout side fruit and nuts, emergency car tyre repair canisters in the centre isles, and value baked beans flooded my senses. I was in a retail reverie of my own making. A value void. I was growing worryingly nostalgic for previously mundane everyday things.
Another supermarket super wobble occurred later that same day when a radio advert mentioned an English supermarket. I immediately had a head to toe memory flush. All other thoughts fell out through my shoes and I was left with a strangely lucid vision of walking around my local Sainsbury’s and buying cleaning products with my wife. At that point in time, it was the one thing I wanted more than anything. Unexpected worries in the baggage area.
These realisations and my recent toilet habits assured me that I’d caught the worst bug a wannabe adventurer could get, homesickness. At this point, I was convinced adventuring was not for me and I wanted to go home. But enough of the negativity.
The highs of adventuring
As promised, a care package of positive storytelling is on its way. A kaleidoscope of kindness. A colonoscopy of care. These positive experiences, among others, provided the perfect antidote to the homesickness and made me feel part of a bigger community of humankind. They also did their bit to put the dreams of a life of adventure back on the table.
Without a doubt, the most influential experiences were ones of kindness from strangers. Big acts and small acts alike. These instances made such a huge impact on me and affected more than any ‘on the bike’ experience could. At this stage, a slight disclaimer is needed. A lot the time I looked like I was in quite a state. Pretty much all of the time I had dirty laundry hanging from the bike. And 100% of the time, I was hungry. So it is entirely possible that these acts were driven by pity, but they were kind none the less.
These acts of kindness came in different shapes and sizes as products of different kinds of interactions. Sometimes I’d put myself out there and ask for support, sometimes people would provide it unprovoked. I’d come to realise that there must be some visible clue that comes from a lone person on a fully laden bike. It seems to draw people in. Even casual observers could see that I was alone, out of my usual surroundings, and I was up against a challenge. This inspired some delicious flourishes of the human spirit at the most unexpected moments.
I had countless slices of delicious watermelon passed my way when I was struggling with the Croation heat. A kind Italian bloke paid for my breakfast without me knowing after getting lost in rural Turin. I was bought a coffee as I sat outside a shop waiting for the thunderstorm to pass. An Albanian petrol station attendant gave me a hat full of figs after I’d been struggling with soul drowning rain showers. Greek cafe owners waved the bill and bakeries threw in extra biscuits as a way of saying good luck, or “I can tell you’ve slept in a bush”. A couple of French cyclists lent me their maps for few weeks when I look befuddled. A restaurant owner, like some sort of tropical Santa, even left some pineapple juice outside my tent one morning. All of these were unprovoked and completely out of the blue, but entirely spirit restoring.
The small acts of kindness were only half the story, however. Other people really upped the game and made the breakfast buying good-doers look like vicious robotic dictators. They did this by opening up their homes, sharing a meal, and offering up a conversation. A couple of French cycle tourists gave me a room and an education in local gastronomy. In spite of a language barrier the size of a tree, a lovely Italian man shared a meal with me and waived the fee for the nights stay in his hotel. A local politician invited me in for tea, put me up in his office, introduced me to his family, and generously didn’t even bring up Brexit in a chat about politics. The bravery in these gestures was tremendously touching.
Experiencing this on a daily basis built up a reassuring belief in people and helped me be more resilient. I knew that spinning the pedals and trusting that things would work was generally all I needed to do. Time after time, the minute I started pedalling, the doubts slipped away, a sense of calm was restored and I was literally making progress. Like spinning plates and swimming sharks, keep moving and all will be fine (don’t try and spin a shark, the stick just snaps and you ruin the shark’s confidence). I’d built up a bank of experiences that suggested: “Keep smiling, keep pedalling, and things will eventually work out”.
The lessons of adventuring
How convenient. I’ve laid out the ups and downs of the trip and have even left space for a summary. An apt time to consider the question that inspired the ride in the first place; “Am I cut out for a life of bicycle adventuring?”.
With cycling glasses now replaced with their rose-tinted counterparts, I can see that it was an amazing experience. I am an emotionally richer and financially poorer person because of it. However, the enjoyment didn’t come from the hunk of metal and wheels I carried around with me. It came from the piles of flesh and bones I encountered along the way, or what some people would call, ‘humans’.
*Cue final scene arrangement where all characters align to salute, bow to the audience, and receive flowery adulation*
These friendly folk (who on reflection now seem like figments of my imagination) gave me a humble reminder of what the most important experiences in life are. They encouraged me to think about the values I want to take home as a souvenir. And they practically forced me at gunpoint to pass these acts of kindness forward.
With the deafening siren of the conclusion alarm ringing in my ear, I can now say I am definitely an adventurer. Not for the sake of seeking thrills, but for the rich experiences. The best part of that lesson is that you don’t have to cycle hundreds of miles. Every day is an adventure with a bit of faith in other humans and a bravery to reach out and connect. A bicycle is just a good tool to turn up the frequency dial.