Friday, 9 July 2010

Trans Pennine - Day One

An account of the three days it took me to cycle the Trans Pennine Trail in aid of Cancer Research UK

Southport to Cheadle
Start time 10:00
End time 21:30

My journey begins in the quaint seaside town of Southport. Whilst the uninspiring name may suggest otherwise, the area looked pleasant enough and may perhaps be worth a second visit one day. But, alas, there was no time to stop at the Lawnmower Museum – I had a country to cycle across!

The Trans Pennine Trail runs from Southport to Hornsea – not as the crow flies unfortunately, which meant I had approximately 215 miles to cover, including a section right over the Pennines. But I wasn’t going to worry about that just yet. A relatively short 65 miles run to Cheadle, South Manchester was my initial goal. Which, to be fair, would be the most I have ever physically exerted myself anyway… For, you see, I am not a particularly fit young man. I’m young, granted, which helps, as it means I’ve had less years of no exercise than a 40 year old man trying to do the same thing. But I’ve not really trained either, not as much as I could and indeed should have. It all seems quite worrying all of a sudden.

I bid farewell to Jayne, my much appreciated lift (and girlfriend!) at the monument on the seafront and began my cycle south along the coastal road. Almost immediately the road jilted upwards and continued to do so for a good few miles. Now, as we shall see, preparation was not my strong point on this trip, and one thing I neglected to comprehend was that I was starting on the coast, and thus, at sea level. Once this obvious and simple fact is digested it can only be a small leap of logic to realise its unlikely I will be heading downhill any time soon. And I bloody hate the hills (‘up’ anyway – their sibling ‘down’ are much more my cup of tea). So, within 30 minutes of setting off on my 3 day trek I’m already thinking - 1. ‘This was a bad idea’ 2. ‘Ow this isn’t much fun’ and 3. ‘Why is my pedal squeaking?’ Yes – less than an hour in and my pedal is making a very annoying squeak every time it goes round. Squeak Squeak Squeak. And on top of this I am acutely aware of the massive weight of my rucksack. Having never trained with a full bag and I am now shocked to find that I’m carrying what feels like an extra 2 stone. Any weight I lost in training was for nothing. Also, the benefits of the clean shave I had this morning, my first in over 18 months, were seemingly wiped out. The decreased weight and improved aerodynamics of a clean shaven face are sadly negligible when you’re packing such extra mass, and your bike is so rubbish it doesn’t even roll downhill properly. Aw man…

A few miles further and I’m finally ‘off-road’. A fair majority of the trail avoids main roads, and sometimes roads altogether, making use of the miles of former railway lines that dot the country and have been converted into pathways. The huge advantage being that they are flat and straight and as such makes journeys on them very efficient. For the time being I’m enjoying riding down a minute country lane. With the sun beaming down and the flats plains around me I feel like I could be in Southern France. It’s marvellous. It’s also the hottest day of the year so far, so I’m careful to get plenty of sun cream on and drink plenty of fluids. Hey, this is kinda fun!

A little further down said road I am feeling less optimistic. I’ve come to a T junction and I don’t recognise the names of the place to the left, or to the right. I consult my official Trans Pennine Map. The Maps are great, really detailed close-ups of the route you’ll be taking. If I had to criticise them at all, I would say that straying off the official route by anything over half a mile leaves you in a pretty sticky situation. A situation I was now in. Neither place name appeared on my map. Now, whilst I’d say I’ve got a very good sense of direction and am pretty decent at reading a map, it suddenly struck me that whilst driving a car, its pretty easy to take a punt and see where you end up. Get it wrong and at worst you’ve got a 5 or 10 minute drive to retrace your steps. On a bike, I suddenly realised, its very different. Get this wrong and, at best I’ll be 30 minutes behind schedule… Not to mention the energy I’ll waste. I look up to the sky and see where the sun is to try figure out which way I’m facing. I feel quite clever to have thought of this, but then I start to doubt myself – the sun rises in the West right? Or does it? And what use is that if I don’t know where I am?

Needless to say I got it wrong, and soon found myself on a main road with a sign post saying ‘Southport’. Oh God. I was well off track, but thankfully not quite back where I had started. At least I had a direction now, and promptly turned around and bombed down the A59 towards Liverpool, my idiotic squeaking pedal with me all the way.

Due to my foolish navigation skills, I got to Aintree for 12:00, a paltry 10 miles from where I started. My co-rider for the trip, Dave, had just arrived in Southport. In many ways the complete opposite to me – those ways being fitness (he runs marathons), motivation (he’s doing this for fun – for FUN?!), and the state of his bike (it’s a ‘proper’ road bike, with ‘proper’ things like good tyres, a light frame and pedals that are reassuringly silent). Id got there early to get a head start on him and I’d blown it.

I got my foot down (or feet down? It is a bike after all) and sped past the outskirts of Liverpool. An alternate route can take you into the city itself, and along Penny Lane, but I didn’t have time for sightseeing. I had to get to Fiddlers Ferry for 3 o’clock to see England take a thrashing from Germany (oh for hindsight, I could have taken it easy!) I made some strong progress but after a couple of hours had been pushing myself too hard. This was confirmed when an 8 year old child overtook me on his tiny 8 year old child’s bike. He looked around cheekily, as if he could sense what a pathetic specimen of the human race I was, and knew that I didn’t have the energy in me to catch him - a small 8 year old child on that tiny 8 year olds bike, without fancy gears or a bottle holder like mine. My bag probably weighed more than him. Though, to be fair, his bike did have some England flags on the back, which made it look pretty cool. Again, with hindsight, I should have forced the little brat off the road and stolen his motor – it would have caused me less problems than the catastrophe I was riding. Still, easy to say the beating of small child is the answer now, but at the time it wasn’t so obvious.

The mid afternoon sun was causing me big problems now – I was buying an energy drink and filling up my water every 30 minutes, again slowing me down. But I always got a little burst of speed after, and any excuse for a 2 minute rest was welcome. I’d spoken to Dave – looked like we were both just about on course to make it for the England game. I was pleased to hit the River Mersey, and the return to sea level flatness allowed me to power on. After briefly crossing the infamous Spike Island, I made it to Fiddlers Ferry just in time to miss the first Germany Goal.

After that thoroughly delightful rest, I felt suitably inspired by the German performance to march on to victory in Cheadle. With England’s spirit I’d be sulking off home already. Dave and I were taking different routes on our trip – as I mentioned before he had a ‘proper’ bike, whereas I had opted for ‘dad’s old mountain bike’, probably 5…10 years old? Who knows? As such I was taking the off road routes and Dave was following the roads. I waved him farewell and continued down the Mersey. Despite the miserable display I’d just witnessed I felt good and refreshed. Plus, the squeaking pedal had shut itself up! Good things were on the horizon…

The Mersey was an interesting mix of Nature reserves and old factories, remnants of its former dock life. I passed by some impressive industrial bridges, and sped along country walkways that weaved in and out of the warehouses and work yards. Something felt like it had clicked. At this rate I might even beat Dave to Cheadle. It’d be great to see his face if I did!

Then something happened. I wasn’t quite getting the purchase each time I pedalled. The left pedal… something wrong. I stopped for a closer look. Whilst it had indeed stopped making a noise, it had instead altered to actively trying to remove itself from the rest of the bike, as if in protest to the foolish endeavour it was undertaking. And, personally I found this a whole lot more infuriating than a little squeak. Luckily, I had come prepared with a ratchet spanner. Unfortunately I had only brought one size head, and it was the wrong one. What would I do? It was Sunday evening. No garages open at this time. The faster I pedalled, the faster it came loose. But the quicker I would reach my destination. Would I forge on? Or try taking it steady. After some pondering I decided I had to get this fixed.

The people in the first two houses didn’t answer the door. I imagine the majority of people were still down the pub. But a man at the third house did. He looked suspicious as I explained my story, as if my helmet, Cancer Research T Shirt and general sweaty appearance may be just a front to the violent mugging I was about to commit upon his person. But after seeing my bike, he swiftly produced a tool set, found the right size part and tightened up my pedals (the other one was loose too). What a Legend! I was so happy, that I had had the balls to go to a random person’s house and that it had actually worked! I sped off, still eager to beat Dave to the B&B.

Twenty minutes later I felt a familiar lack of purchase from my bike. It had started to come loose again. Oh God. Clearly there was a more fundamental problem than I had thought. By now I had little choice but to pedal on as far as I could. Knocking on more houses would only extend its life by a tiny amount. And by now, I just really wanted to get home. I hit an incredibly straight and long piece of old railway line and ploughed on. Then the inevitable happened. The bloody thing fell off.

By now, I was well out in the sticks. I had no choice but to walk. I called Dave and told him the news. He was nearly at the B&B. There was nothing he could do anyway. I called Jayne and she started looking for a bike repair shop, for the morning. And I trundled on. At first the change of pace was a happy break. I eventually had time to stop for something to eat at a little Coop. But as I entered my third hour of walking, I hit a low. This was Day One. And I was so tired, my legs ached, the hanging weight of my body resting on this utterly rubbish piece of biking equipment. Why had I chosen to ride 215 miles on this? I reasoned it was part of the inverted snobbery I have towards many things. I am constantly suspicious of people who spend anything over £500 on guitars, or people who buy really expensive football boots, or people who do massive bike rides on pimped up ‘proper’ bikes. An expensive guitar isn’t gonna make you a better musician. Expensive boots won’t make you a better player. An expensive bike won’t make you ride better. Which is all true – and if you’re just playing in a local band, or football with yr mates then that’s fine. If you’re touring the world, playing in the premiership or crossing the Pennines however, it probably pays to have the best gear. Otherwise things go wrong and you look like and idiot. What an idiot I felt now.

The agonisingly straight and endless path continued with no end in sight. As the sun slowly set behind me I marched on, barely thinking or feeling anything, except to be anywhere but here. But onwards I marched.

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