HENLEY TO BRUSSELS
The last week of my life has been a blur. I haven’t been able to find my flow… AT ALL.
One week into my overseas cycling / skydiving adventure, and it feels like I’ve been strapped into the most intense rollercoaster ever built. From the moment I left home on Saturday 11th May, my mind has been revved up and slammed into overdrive. My comfort zone fell off the bike and sank to the bottom of the River Thames, as I rode over the bridge away from Henley. I’ve been functioning through manic, disorganised, indecisive doubt… driven by undeniable fear, muddled up with temporary spouts of confidence. So far, not a single day has unravelled the way I’d hoped or expected… everything takes longer.
What an awesome experience it’s been!
It’s in my nature to be spontaneous. Planning stresses me out because it creates expectations that aren’t always met, which sucks. For the past week I’ve been trying to plan my every move and my stress levels smashed through the roof. There obviously has to be some planning involved, to a certain extent, but trying to figure out exactly where I’m going to sleep in 3 days time – for how many nights – via a particular cycle route and whether I’ll take on loads of hills along the way or not, has almost ruined me. Not to mention getting used to where to keep everything in my bags and trying to eat the right stuff at the right time, as well.
So I’ve decided to revert back to my usual free-flowing ways and I feel like my head is firmly back where it should be!
I’ll write a full run down of week one… like a day-by-day diary. I can’t guarantee this will continue for the entire trip, but since the first week has been so significant and a huge learning curve for me, I’ll explain what happened each day… while it’s fresh!
The first two miles of this adventure, were the toughest two miles I’ve ever cycled in my life.
As I pedalled along the road, with my ex-landlord following close behind on his motorbike to help me get going (cheers Al), I suddenly realised I was ACTUALLY doing this. I had ALL the emotions running through my head. I could hear words of advice, encouragement and pleas to “stay safe” and to make sure I do actually “come home”… repeating in my mind over and over. Beyond the reality of the task in hand, my initial plan to be conservative and only film what I needed to, completely flew out the window. From that point onwards, the faff began. Jumping off the bike, scrambling around with the zip on my bag to get to the camera compartment, switching angles with the GoPro, placing the camera down on a wall, frantically going back 50 feet and cycling past the camera. Manic, clumsy and stressed.
Lots of pedalling up hills and time spent trying to capture my every thought on camera… I finally arrived at the Air BnB that I’d booked. It wasn’t what I expected at all. Cooking facilities weren’t great and I really didn’t feel very comfortable. I was just glad the first day was over!
I knew day two would be a long one, and it definitely was. 78 miles (125km) to be exact and the furthest I’ve ever cycled in one day… not to mention the extra 4 stone (30kg) of weight that I’m carrying. Some of which I definitely need to lose somehow. I’m working on that. Mick and Shelley, at the Sunny Lodge Guest House in Folkestone, were absolutely lovely. They didn’t charge me for breakfast which was really nice of them!
Day three and It was lush to have an extra hour in bed. The ride from Folkestone up to Dover was interesting… straight into the steep hill up to Capel-le-Ferne, which was pretty savage. Got the legs warmed up pretty quickly to say the least. Mick said that most people get off their bikes and walk up the hill… so I thought, challenge accepted! Low gear, took my time and spun the pins like a maniac. Great view at the the top overlooking Folkestone!
The ferry over to Calais was smooth. Met some cyclists on their way to do a tour of Bruges and Ghent. As we rode off the ferry and through the port, we were suddenly struck by a strong head wind, which pushed me back to snails pace all the way to Dunkirk. It took a hell of a lot of effort to get the bike moving and by the time I got to Dunkirk, I was annihilated. I felt delusional, my knees were starting to seize up and I felt dizzy.
I was really glad I’d pre-booked a couch surfing host for the night. Although deep down I knew it would be ok… I was anxious before meeting my host. As soon as Davina opened the door and said hello, I knew everything was going to be ok. Calm, kind and genuine. Davi let me into her flat as if I’d been her friend for years, and we talked about how our lives had lead us to where we were now. I’m very grateful to have had such a kind host for the first day on this side of the water.
I woke up on Tuesday 14th feeling like I’d been punched in the face.
Because my kidneys are unable to regulate the fluids in my body as well as they should, it causes fluid retention. This is mainly because when I do a lot of exercise, my albumin (blood protein) levels drop and the swelling is caused by water leaving the blood vessels that are usually carried around the body! My ankles are pretty swollen too.
I wanted to get some work done, capture some thoughts on camera and start writing about what I’d been doing, but instead I just walked around Dunkirk in a daydream. I also wanted to go and visit the beach of ‘Malo les Bains, where the WWII evacuation took place… but I lost track of time and basically forgot. My mind was elsewhere, thinking about my next move, how I was going to get there and overthinking whether this trip was a good idea or not. I’m gutted I didn’t visit the beach, but maybe I can make a diversion on the way home and see it then.
I left Dunkirk and started riding south east towards Kortrijk. With quite a lot of head wind again, I cycled through some gorgeous countryside and stopped for lunch in a small town called Ypres. The town is full of war memorials and huge gothic buildings that were reconstructed after WWI. It was a pretty uneventful ride to be honest… and I arrived in Kortrijk much later than I expected, obviously!
This was the first time during the trip that I hadn’t organised somewhere to sleep beforehand, which turned out to be a really good decision. By chance, I found the perfect place to stay, Hostel Groeninghe. It had plenty of space for my bike and for the first night, I had an entire dorm to myself. It was a turning point for me… and a reminder that my usual ways of just getting up and out the door, could work for some of this trip. I think the skill in travelling like this, comes with gaining the ability to judge how much planning you actually ‘need’ to do. There will be times when I need to plan ahead, and other times where going with the flow and enjoying the journey, will lead me to the best destination naturally.
Another day of daydreaming.
I sat in a cafe and organised my media and sent a couple of emails to Tijil at Skydive Flanders. I was trying to organise a lift from with someone from Brussels to the dropzone in Schaffen. To add to my revitalised concept of going with the flow, I also met two cyclists in the hostel. Mateusz had cycled from Brighton, to go to a gig in Kortrijk and was in Dover the day before me! Thierry joined me in my luxurious penthouse suite… and I soon found out that he is responsible for monitoring the maintenance of all the cycle routes around Belgium! He drew me up a little plan for my journey from Kortrijk to Brussels, via Ghent. I was going to ride straight from Kortrijk to Brussels, but the journey was a lot hillier, and my new plan only added on an extra 5km…
I set off for Ghent at 9am on Friday 17th. It was a calm morning with only a slight breezy head wind.
I felt so relieved that it wasn’t a repeat of my journey from Calais to Dunkirk.
The route took me all the way along the River Lys, which gave me a couple of great opportunities to get the drone out! I found a rowing lake (Watersportbaan) just outside Ghent and decided to sit down and have lunch. In hindsight, this is where I made a bad decision to cycle into the centre, for the sake of a few shots of me riding through the city… which added on about an extra hour and a half.
I began my journey towards Brussels MUCH later than I’d expected! No surprise there then…
It was a much tougher ride than I’d had during the morning. Not only because I’d already ridden 50km to get to Ghent… but there were more hills! I slowed the pace right down. I had a quick look at Google Maps around 5pm, just to see how far I’d gone… and realised I still wasn’t even at the half way point, Aalst. I drifted off beyond the point of caring and just started pedalling without the slightest sense of urgency. After a couple more hours of sauntering through fields and countryside villages, I noticed a change in scenery as I entered the suburbs of Brussels. I felt a sudden boost of determination to get there…
I’d raced to get this far, because Skydive Flanders only jump at the weekend… and I didn’t want to wait around for another week!
I spun the dial round to my reserve tank and put the power down!
One last steep hill towards Hostel Bruegel, another unnecessarily long day and I finally arrived at 21:30. I was over-tired and buzzing from the fact I’d just cycled from England to Brussels! So I had a quick shower, put the batteries on charge and went out to get some dinner and explore. I walked into the heart of the city and found the Town Hall illuminated with all the colours of the rainbow… then I saw a ‘PRIDE’ banner and realised it was Gay Pride in Brussels. The city was lively and full of crazy characters. I walked around till I crashed around 12:30 and took the whole of Saturday off to rest my body and mind.
So what have I learned in the first week of my challenge?
Slow and steady will always win the race.
I’m going to try and shorten the rides, just a little bit… so that I’m a lot less stressed and pressured to arrive on time.
Filming the journey takes up a LOT of time.
In conjunction with shorter days, having more time to film along the way will sort my stress levels out as well.
Un-zip and zip-up!
Whenever I faff around to get a shot of me talking to camera or to film a ‘ride-by’… every zip or pocket opened HAS to be closed immediately afterwards. I’ve had too many items jump out of my bag and I’m amazed I haven’t broken anything yet!
Everything we do in life… is mind-over-matter.