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January 13, 2009

The making of a cycle tourist

Fighting for breath, pain searing through my legs, and with the wind and sleet doing their best to impede my progress, I finally make it to Abra Lay Raya - the 4,350m pass between Cusco and Puno - after 50km of relentless climbing. Could this be the same guy who, 12 years before, could not even ride the 15km to work without getting off and pushing whenever he got to a small hill?

As a kid I was probably no less active than most, playing ball in the street and whizzing around on my scooter and bike. I looked forward to PE at primary school, although I seem to recall being the worst at just about everything. Even my younger brother could run circles around me at football.

Then came high school and the sadistic games teachers. Sitting in the freezing cold for half an hour for registration (no tracksuits allowed). Playing rugby on frozen pitches where every tackle felt like being run over by a particularly heavy goods train. The cold showers.

I did enjoy basketball though. That is, until I was politely asked to leave the under-12 squad in the second week of training - my advantageous height sadly not compensating for a complete lack of skill and coordination.
So I started to lose interest in sport, and then a car accident put me out of action for about a year.

I was not totally inactive for the rest of my childhood. I always rode or walked to school/work, played a bit of football, and got involved in competitive table tennis. Even so, by the time I reached 18 I was very unfit, I could not even swim 200m freestyle.

At university I continued playing table tennis and got into hiking, rock-climbing and badminton, but there were greater diversions at the time, mostly centred around the student union bar. Then within a few years of starting work my bike was stolen and physical activity disappeared from my life almost completely.

The turning point came during a visit to see my Dad in the US one Christmas. I was walking past a local bike shop and saw a shiny new Gary Fisher mountain bike in the window. I had never done any mountain biking before, but this bike had front suspension and 21 gears and was on sale so, on a complete whim, and not even knowing if the bike was any good or not, I went in and bought it. (It turned out to be a pretty decent bike, I still have it and it is my most treasured possession).

That summer I started doing short rides on the trails around my home in Chippenham. I was really enjoying spending time outdoors in the countryside, and starting to feel fit and healthy again for the first time in years. Then one day I had the crazy idea of riding to work, a whopping 15km away in Malmesbury. Not being sure I could make it that distance, that first day I put the bike in the car and drove to a village half-way, parked in the pub car park, got the bike out and rode the rest. It was a beautiful, fresh & sunny summer morning and the sights, smells and sounds of the Cotswold countryside came to me like they had never done during the 100s of times I'd driven the same way. There was a small hill where I had to push, but otherwise I made it to work quite comfortably, feeling great and looking forward to the ride home.

From then on I was converted. I rode to work more and more often, got some slick tires for the bike and, before long, I wasn't having to push up the hills anymore and my trip time went from 50 to 35 minutes. During the long summer evenings I'd go home by ever more diverse routes, exploring more of the countryside and stopping in village pubs for an ale or two. I continued through the rains of autumn and the snows of winter, each season bringing a new set of sensory delights.

I hadn't felt so good for years, and I wanted others to experience it, so I started trying to encourage more people to ride to work: promoting the health, social and environmental benefits; organising an annual Bike to Work Week; lobbying the management for decent changing and parking facilities. Before long they were having to install new bike sheds, and there was a group of us riding in from Chippenham each day. It was great fun - and sometimes very fast - with six or seven of us drafting off each other. Great days. Work now seemed like just a small interruption in the day's cycling, though I felt more enthusiasm for it and I'm sure my improved physical and mental state helped with my career.

Cycling took over my life more and more, going for rides at weekends with friends, doing charity rides such as the 100km London to Brighton, and then my first ride with panniers: 150km to visit my sister in Portsmouth.

It was moving to Australia though that really got me into cycle touring: building up from short weekend rides exploring the National Parks and isolated beaches around Sydney, to two weeks doing the coastal route from Newcastle to Brisbane, to a month exploring wonderful Tasmania.

These days I couldn't imagine travelling any other way. And my fitness? Well, it'd me running circles round my little brother now (though I'm still hopeless at basketball).

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