Skip to content

4

Such a simple saying, but one that is used a lot. Simple phrase, simple meaning, but also very profound at times. 

Don't talk yourself out of something, believe in yourself, your barrier is your mind, not your body. Just a few of the breakdowns of what it all actually means. From something as simple as cooking a new dish, to learning to drive a car, we all have our inhibitions about something in life. For some of us, overcoming that is a simple act of taking a deep breath, and simply giving it a go. For others, the process is far from simple. 

"Just give is a go, what's the worst that can happen". Fantastic line to prompt someone who just needs a push in the right direction. Terrifying challenge for someone already beginning their spiral of anxiety about something. 

"What's the worst that can happen?" That is challenging asking an anxious overthinking to dream up the worst possible scenarios, and terrify themselves completely out of contemplation of the objective ahead. 

Speaking to friends last night, it was refreshing to hear how well some people understand the concepts of what goes on in the mind of an anxious or depressed person. What most fail to understand is, while "mind over matter" is indeed the case for most, for some of us it is more "subconscious mind, over mind, over matter".
Consciously, you can have all the will in the world, and talk a great game. Your desire to achieve something can be huge, but that doubt, those voices... Well, they just are not going to let you go for it.

Like the old adage of the angel and devil on opposing shoulders, battling it out, whispering in your ear, "do it, don't do it".. Sometimes the simplest of decisions can be a real battle. 

Last week while in mainland Europe on the ride, that is something I faced a lot of, especially in the first couple of days. Something I touched on in my previous piece.

Obviously, with severe cramps on the first day, my doubts were borderline justified. Although I was fully aware that the cramping was purely down to poor hydration, and pretty much self inflicted. The result of these were a long drawn out mental battle with myself. Already having a little doubt about my ability to do the whole ride, having a physical issue to back it up was almost the straw which broke this camels back!

After the first break I took, which was lunch, I have to say I was feeling down and dejected. Almost every drop of enjoyment was wrung out of me, I didn't want to speak to anyone, let alone ride with anyone. At points I would happily have hit a reset button on the day, and not bothered getting out of bed for it. Each time I approached the end of a road where I needed to stop and give way, or even worse, a hill, I was filled with dread.

How bad would the next cramp be!
Standing to climb, immediately my quads would start to burn, then movement would become restricted, to the point I was having to almost squat while standing, and adapt my pedal stroke so my legs would not get close to full extension. After one or two little hills, I realised being forward on the pedals, almost as if sprinting, was the position I cramped the least in. This worked for a while, but once on a hill I could not carry on standing on, I knew it was game over. The next issue was going to be how to stop and get off the bike. 

Clipping both feet out on the last couple of pedal strokes, I stopped the bike, immediately leaning it to one side, and stood over it, massive cramps arrived straight away, so I was reduced to squatting over the bike. Not a pretty position  at the side of the road. Ideally I needed to be off the bike and sitting, so eventually I sucked it up, stood for a second, whipped the bike out from beneath me, and dropped back into a squat. Seeing a fire hydrant sign near by, the perfect perching spot, I squat walked (like I had just shit myself!!) over to the sign. Typically it was a few feet up a small bank, one final challenge to overcome. 

Eventually, bum planted, it was time for a break. During this five mins of reflection I decided that I would not try and ride any more hills on the ride that day, but would instead walk them. Stretching my legs out, and preserving my quads from any damage. Setting off again after a good drink and a gel, I had a little more determination. 

Having pondered over what my issues were, I knew that if there was less physical discomfort, my mind would have less to work with to convince me I could not do it. If I could at least win that battle, I knew I had a fighting chance of carrying on. 

Ironically, as the hills disappeared, and the last of the elevation was done with, the cramps subsided, a little strength returned to my legs, and the will to get to the end returned. Arriving in Dover just in time for the rush hour and school run, the pace was restricted, which suited me fine. Time was on my side, I was used to riding on busier roads.

Looking down at the Garmin map, it was now clear to see there were just a few miles remaining, the end of the UK leg was nigh, my mind was in a better place. Kinda. The end of the physical part was a relief for sure, knowing there were just a few miles left on the French side once we got there, but for now, a well earned rest. That said, the end of this section also meant people, and that was something my mind was not in the mood for. 

It's easy when the mind is in a good place, to just suck it up and socialise, put on that face, and be the person people think you are. When you are in somewhat of a spiral however, well that is another matter. Even attempting to try and be the happy go lucky version of yourself can be hugely mentally taxing, and leave you worse off that you would have been if you had avoided the situation in the first place. Very familiar with this feeling, I decided the best thing to do was to go for a ride along the sea front, which I did. 

Arriving back 20 or so mins later, it was almost time to head to the ferry. From this point on, my mind was focused on getting to France, into the hotel and being alone for the evening. Thankfully the next hour or so was pretty painless. Very little interaction needed, plenty of space, and once on the ferry I could find myself a nice little hiding space for an hour or so. Having a little chat with some friendly faces as we boarded and found our way to the upper decks, I headed for the dining room, grabbed some dinner, and made a phone call. A great way for ensuring you remain sitting on your own.

Once I had eaten, I found a nice little space at the back of the dining room, and had a little lay down. Before I knew it we were docking and getting ready to disembark. From here, a quick briefing, and off to the hotel we went. Quick as I could, I grabbed my key, took my bags, and scuttled off to my room. Aware many others would be up late, having a drink and a chat, I was finally in my comfort zone. 
Day One, done.

I would life to say that the next morning all was well. To a large degree this would actually be the truth. Reset button pressed, ready to give things a go. Aware the weather was going to be a little testing, my head was still in the game. Not like I have never ridden in a headwind before eh!

Taking the advice of others, but going against my usual routine, I decided on having a fairly plentiful breakfast to fuel me for a long day ahead. Sitting alone in the dining room, I had a few coffees, pastries, and a variety of other bits and bobs. Possibly my first mistake of the day. Out to the back yard, and getting the bikes out from storage, I mixed carefully, with faces I was at ease with, and people I felt I could connect with, without having to be too extravagant. It was interesting to hear from a couple from the very start that they too were not mentally in the right place for the day. Good not to be the only one. 

And we were off.. Some more literally than others. Within a mile of the start there was already and accident with one of the riders, although I am told not too serious, I am sure if it were me, that would have been me done for the morning at least. On I went, very quickly singling myself out from the rest. I was nowhere near the back, so at no risk of being left behind, but neither did I have the energy to keep with any of the bunches who were riding together. A couple of miles later and we were out of town, and into the open air. The headwinds were already relentless, and the effort needed to keep moving was a lot more than I had to give. 

Checking my power-meter readings, at one point I was averaging 250w to achieve 10mph on the flat! If it was going to be like this for the whole day, it was going to be a long one. 80+ miles to complete, so 8+ hours of pedaling... Really! This could be bad. Easing up on the power, to just stay in double figures with the speed, I slowly found a pace that suited, even if it felt like I was getting nowhere. At this rate the first water stop was two hours away! This is not what I had imagined when I signed up for the ride. The road surface was also quite abrasive, so also quite draining, with constant vibrations. The decision to go 25c instead of 32c was starting to feel a little bit unwise. 

Just before the first waterstop, I caught up with Hannah and Stewart Sharp. Two friendly smiling faces who had the ability to inject a positive vibe into most situations. Stopping with them for a couple of minutes, before riding into town for the water stop felt good. Mentally it was good to connect, and communicate with people, without the buzz of the group at the stop. Once we reached the stop, I managed a little small talk, before heading off once again.

Back into the winds, grinding away to get some sort of pace going, riding alone. Off to the next stop, the lunch stop. Another 20 odd mile leg ahead. Each time the wind dropped for a while, it was time to get the hammer down and try and get some distance in again. Breaks from the wind in the form of towns or trees were welcome everytime, and became a point to aim for each time one came into sight. Trying not to over cook things, I decided that I would break the leg of the ride down into 5 mile sections, manageable, and each time one was done, I would find a safe place to stop, and take five.

On one such break I decided to pop in one of my ear buds, and listen to a bit of music, to get a break from the wind in my face. This really helped I have to say, a little tempo to ride to, selecting the right gear to spin to, and for a while pay less attention to the speed, and more to the tempo. Breaks from your own mind are a good thing at times, and for me, music really helps take me away from it all for a while.  On the next stop, I decided to have a small snack, take a couple of pictures, and get going. On setting off again, I got just a few yards down the road before feeling the ear bud become loose suddenly, before it fell silent.

Wireless ear buds eh! What a fantastic invention... Until one falls out while you are moving of course! Stopping quickly, I propped the bike up and begun the search. I had not been going fast, I knew roughly where it came out. Checking helmet straps, jersey pockets etc, nothing. Looking on the floor, nothing. A white ear bud on grey cobbles, come on, this should be easy. Looking to my right I considered the parked car, could my luck be that bad. Getting on all fours, it appears yes it could be that bad, and there it was... Dead centre of the car, between all four wheels perfectly. Out of normal reach. Brilliant!

Walking to the pavement side, I lay myself on the floor, and finally, at full reach, waving my hand about, contact! Grabbing it between my fingers, I had it! Good news too, it was still working. Phew!

Time to get going again, and back into the headwinds. A few miles down the road I was aware of someone riding behind me, turning to check, I realised it was a face I knew from our group, but not someone I knew as a person. Time to test out my small talk! Surprisingly,  we were pretty like minded, and had actually made a conscious to ride alone. Choosing not to try and match the pace of a pack, which can become very demoralising after a while, when you are struggling to keep up. But instead choosing to ride alone at a reasonable pace, which suited ourselves, and stop when we wanted to take pictures, or simply have a breather. 

We rode together for a while (cheers Patrick) before I headed off ahead for a bit. The last of the 5 mile pitstops was abandoned, in the hope of just getting into a groove, and getting to lunch at a reasonable time. Told at the morning briefing that they wanted us finished at a reasonable hour, as Brugge was a lovely place and should be explored, everyone was keen to get to lunch in good time.

From this point was probably one of the toughest times for me, back alone, in the wind, and frequent sightings of the Discovery Adventure van, the thought of quitting kept passing through my mind. From the first stop til now, the going had been hard, pushing too hard physically, had left me weak mentally. Every few minutes, running the conversations in my head, of what I would say to the driver of the van, the reason for stopping (not quitting), exhaustion, stress, the weather, fitness, breathing. I ran all the possibilities. But to my retrospective delight, each time the opportunity presented itself, to flag down and van, and call it.... I chose not to, instead thinking "next time". Thankfully, next time didn't come, and the lunch stop appeared. 

I should add at this point, thank you to Helena for having such a whistle! Having not noticed the signs for the stop, I blew straight past the stop, only hearing some whistling from behind. Looking back and seeing a man walking down the road, I just thought "wanker", and carried on. Another whistle, this time I saw arms waving... Phew, that was close! Turning back, a sense of relief (and dread) set in.

Unfortunately, on arriving just before 11am, it soon became apparent that the 11.30 time scheduled for lunch was far from a reality. Out of the wind at last, it was now the turn of the sun to suck the energy out of everyone. 
Sitting at a table outside with a couple of the guys, including Darren who I had grown very comfortable being around, the mood was light, and conversation felt easy. What a relief. 
Cue the arrival of Mark and Peter. A pair,  if I am honest, I was wary of. High energy, a focal point of the group, the personalities were a complete mismatch to what I needed right now. Loud arrival cries were heard, and we now had company. 

Over what felt like the next half hour, conversation was not terrible, but for the main part I kept my head buried in my phone, and got uploading pictures etc. Around 11.30 we were finally called in to "eat". All taking our seats around three huge tables, all a little cramped. The table I had chosen had a number of unfamiliar faces on, who I would later get to know a lot better, and appreciate much more. The pre-judgemental side of me had done a right number on some of the people, for which I am slightly ashamed.  Peter joined us on our table, along with Helena, John and some other great people. 

To say that the whole experience at lunch was both demoralising and mentally draining is a fair comment I think. As time dragged on, the food seemed to be a no show. Eventually after quite some time, starters appeared. Relief filled the room, and a little glimmer of light shone on my cloud of doom. The wait for the next course became painfully long, to the point I was actually rocking in my seat, counting down the seconds before I was just going to leave it.  Voicing my intentions, a couple of people at the table convinced me that due to the weather, we all at least needed a bit more food in our bodies before heading off.  By this time, after much conversation, my opinions of people were really starting to change. And had it not been for the knowledge that only half the day was done, and a long distance lay ahead, I think I could have quite happily stayed and chatted. Sorry to have been so judgmental people, especially you Peter.

Once the second course had been served, a somewhat underwhelming chicken and rice dish, most of us decided to head off. It had now been a couple of hours at least, and even the promise of an apple tarlet was not enough to keep bums on seats a second longer. I have no doubt that a lot of apple tarts went to waste that day, or they made a killing from the number which had been paid for but were never served. I will never know, but then I also would never recommend the place to anyone either, so hey ho. 

Back on the bikes, it was not long before the cobbles of Belgium appeared. A welcome sight, but not such a welcome feeling under bottom and hands. Brick paved roads were now the norm for some miles to come. But that said, the wind had dropped a little, or at least we had turned out of it a bit, we were in the third country of the trip now, and the scenery began to change for the better. The sun was out too, so that kinda helped, although without running the risk of sounding too whiny, it was quite warm!

Riding alongside river and canals, my mind was transported away from the worry and overthinking, and I was caught by the beauty of the place. Now this was more like it! Spirits lifting rapidly, a far cry from the messages I had sent at earlier stops saying how much I was starting to struggle and doubt myself. Looking down at the distance travelled, I was aware I was getting close to the next stop. Some shade, a bottle refill, and some fruit jellies awaited, along with a good stretch out, some conversation and a recharge on the mental batteries. Sending messages home, I was pleased to announce an improved mental state, much to the relief of Ann and Jason I am sure. 

Final leg of the day remained, another 20 or so miles, slightly out of the wind, and in the lovely sunshine. This was going to be a good section, and I have to say it was. Full of positive thoughts, and a new found respect for a slower pace, along with full water bottles, I was ready, so on I went. Alone again for most of it, taking the time to stop and take pictures here and there. Before I knew it I was in another small town, so took five mins to sit in the shade, and walk about a bit to get the  blood flowing again. Heading off shortly after a group passed by, I at least knew I was not too separated from the group, and was still far from the back. Reaching the next town, signs for Brugge, at last! Albeit 10km or so to go, that was all I needed to press on.

Arriving at the outskirts of the city at a large junction, panic... Where have the signs gone!! Logic said straight over, so I tried that, passing through the entrance arch, I found nothing. Garmin was saying one way, but the echoes of the instructions from the guides were bouncing around in my head, if in doubt, head back to the last arrow. Heading back to the junction I spotted another group arriving in town, unfortunately I was on the wrong side of the road to join them, and traffic was against me. Getting off quickly and crossing as soon as safe, I jumped back on the bike and made haste to catch them up. Thankfully I managed to. After a little discussion, someone took the lead, and off we headed. Another good little group to be in, no one in a rush, phew, safety in numbers as they say. 

Half an hour later and we were almost there, having found the arrows, we knew we didn't have far to go. The final mile or so, well of course, it was cobble!! And I don't mean brick paved, I mean REAL cobble. Just what tired arms and legs wanted. One member of the group said she actually quite liked it. No names mentioned! (OK Hannah said it felt like a massage on her bum, there I said it!!)

Rounding the final corner,  we were greeted by the happy faces of Jo and Fiona, and informed we had made it, we were at the hotel. 

Storing the bikes, going to check in and grabbing the key, I was off for a shower ASAP. Knowing I was sharing for this night, and discovering there was no lock on the bathroom door, it was a quick shower. Sharing with Bill that evening, someone I had spoken to briefly a number of times, but was not familiar with, my nerves were going crazy. I sleep badly at the best of times, but to share a room, with a complete stranger sleeping feet away, knowing I snore badly at times... This was gonna be stressful. 

Fast forward a little, and I was back downstairs having a drink at the bar. Getting to know a few new faces again, whilst in the security of John, who I was now very familiar and comfortable with. As people joined us, there was one topic being mentioned over and over again, the wind! How hard going it had been today, the doubts people had had in themselves, and the fight to keep going against the relentless winds. The slow pace, the hard efforts for little reward.... The comments just kept coming!
PHEW!! It was all of us, not just me, not just some of us, but everyone had suffered today.

Having started the day on a slightly better footing than Day 1, but having slipped very quickly to an all time low, just hearing these tales had my mental energy returning fast. 

As I wrap this entry up, or start to at least, this brings me back to the main point, mind over matter. While it is easy to say, it is really hard to do, and even the strongest amongst us can be ground down after too long outside our comfort zones. For those of us with a predisposition to negative thoughts, the battle is all that much harder, and the spiral of despair and doubt comes around fast. However, the message within is to never completely give up. To know that better times are just around the corner, and for every bad day, there is most likely one or more good days, with a sprinkling of amazing days mixed in for good measure. 

So the saying is true, just not in the same sense for all. For some, it is a simple act of just living in the moment, overcoming the mind, and getting on. For others the mind rules over the matter, and controls what happens. Regardless of desire, dreams and ambitions, sometimes the mind just does as it chooses, and we are just along for the ride. On good days however we stick two fingers up to it all and do as we bloody well please, just like everyone else.

I want to round this up by saying this. 
I have mentioned certain names a few times in this entry, but want to be clear about one thing. There is no ill feeling towards anyone mentioned or not mentioned. In fact I learned some important lessons over the first couple of days of this trip. The main one being, don't be so judgemental. Something I blog about time and time again, judging others without knowing them, yet here I was doing just that.

So Mark and Peter, sincerest apologies. I completely misread you both in a low moment, and allowed that judgement to tarnish my encounters with you for a while. However by the evening of Day 2 I realised the error of my ways, and was pleased to have spent every moment with you both after this time. I know it sounds a bit pretentious, but I am just saying it how it played out. Something tells me that the more grounded sides of both of you understand this better than some others would.

Andy, David, Darren, and Robbie. You were really amazing to spend time with. Kindred spirits, cut from similar cloth for sure, the banter, the heart to hearts and the simple company was really encouraging for me. It is nice to receive support from like minded people, especially when it is the silent kind that just reminds you people are there. 

John, Helena, Jezz, our conversations were delightful. Interesting, borderline intriguing, and nice to take the mind off the moment from time to time. The company on sections of the rides was fantastic too. Thank you all. 

Stewart and Hannah, a separate entity of your own. Down tools, drop the mask, and just me myself with you both. The company was remarkable, and I only wish I had managed to ride with you both more for more of the trip.

Jo and Fiona, those crazy celebrations at each stop, the sanity and welfare checks along the way, all made the ride more manageable. Special thanks to Jo for all the hard work getting the rooms sorted out, I have no doubt that it would have been a very different trip without the single rooms.

There are so many more people who deserve a mention, and sorry if I have not mentioned you. But I can say without question that every single person, regardless of levels of interactions played a part in my ability to complete the #L2A2019 challenge. 

Far harder mentally than physically (although it did takes its toll), I would do it again in a heartbeat. Better informed, better prepared, next time I am positive I am up for whatever the next challenge is. 

Til that time, thank you all so much.

I am not going to sugar coat it, or make it seem that things were any different to how it actually was, quite simply, it has been tough. So I shall get into it and explain how. And of course give some more details of the surprises along the way.

The past few weeks have been a bit tougher than usual, mainly with the build up to the London to Amsterdam ride. So imagine my delight when I woke up feeling fresh for the trip, and headed out early to get some pre ride miles in.  By the time I arrived in Sydenham my mood had already slipped, and it was starting to fill me with dread again. So many people milling around, not sure what I should be doing, trying to put on a brave face.

An hour passed, anxiety building more, trying to gravitate towards those who I have had positive experiences with, and less towards those which oozed negativity. Big group, busy road, not sure what I was meant to be doing, I ended up just plodding along, and trying to get from A to B. By half way in to the first day, I was cramping badly, which was really having a negative impact on my mood, I was now riding solo, although that was probably a good thing (which I will come back to later), and mentally I was drained. 

A bit of delay and drama at the first main stop of the day, lunch, was enough  to really get the mood cascading full flow. Time to go and get out of it all. Riding away, my brain spinning like crazy, I found myself some space, and just plodded for a bit. Drizzle and wind really helped the mood, especially when reaching the hills. 

At one point I called my other half, Ann. Just looking to hear a friendly voice, vent a bit and try and get my head in the game. Walking up a hill, as my quads were cramping too much to ride, we spoke about each others day, and cleared my mind a bit. Back on the bike, head in the game, I got there.

Arriving at the meeting point, once again, so many people, mood was a solitary one for me, so I rode away for a while to have my own space, and returned when it was time to move to the terminal. For the rest of the day I pretty much kept myself to myself, eating alone, and avoiding having to put on a smile for the sake of it. Rolling in to Calais, all I wanted was a shower and my bed. Thankfully it was a single room for Day 1, so I was able to escape. 

After a poor nights sleep, I woke with a bit more enthusiasm for Day 2, and although I ate alone for breakfast, I tried to be a bit more integrated with the others. Breakfast isn't something I usually do before rides, so within 20 mins of setting off, I was feeling a bit rough. Add to that the headwinds we would be riding into all day, and it was a recipe for a mood bomb for sure. Within the first 5-10 miles, I was done. Mentally, there was no way I was getting through the day. The worst part is, the more you tell yourself that, the truer it becomes. By the first water stop I was torturing myself non stop, and 10 miles after there, I was already running the conversation scenarios through my head for what I would say if I saw the van. "I can't do it!" featured in most scenarios. 

As the miles went on, I would run the conversations in my head,  but each time I saw a van or another rider, the fake smile would appear and I would say nothing, opting to plod on instead. By lunch, which I almost rode straight past due to being deep in thought, I was managing my thoughts a bit better, but just wanted to eat and go, and get the day done with.  This was NOT going to be the case. Lunch was a terrible experience, with it's only redeeming feature being conversation believe it or not.  

While we waited to eat, I found the conversation with the group I had aligned myself with to be easy and natural. It was a long wait, but a blessing in disguise I guess, as once we got to talking about the ride that day, it was obvious to see that almost everyone was in fact struggling, at least physically. 

A quick chat with a couple of the other riders before we set off, and something started to be come apparent. I was not alone! There were others, men, struggling a bit mentally. And we all seemed to be sharing a single characteristic behaviour, isolation. Not completely, but just when things were at their toughest. Like me, there were a group of us who seemed to find solace in our own company when trying to push on. Not afraid of being included if the mood was right, but completely happy, and probably more in our zone to just be left alone. Not to have to follow any set pace or timetable. Happy to plod, stop, take photos and enjoy what was around us. Maybe allowing ourselves to absorb the surroundings was a good distraction from the non stop thoughts, or maybe just a nice break for the body.

By the end of Day 2, it was startling obvious that a number of men was of the same mindset as me. Much to the confusion of some around us, who were (understandably) worried about us excluding ourselves from certain aspects of the ride, mainly the "group" thing.

By Day 3, the weather had taken a turn for the better, the going was a bit easier, and the scenery was stunning. Everything the mind of an overthinker needs to keep it in check. A much more enjoyable day for sure, and something I saw reflected in the moods and actions of my like minded mini group.

From this point on, it became a bit easier to chat to one another, expressing how we felt about being among the groups which had formed, both socially and on the road. And what a relief that was. Almost like being in an anxiety group, sharing feelings, and understanding you are not irrational or strange, but simply not the same as everyone else, and that is OK. 

By the end of the trip I felt I had found a few kindred spirits, people who could ride together, yet alone. Not isolated, just separated by a common desire. I cannot express how good that made me feel!

I should point out that one of the main reasons of doing this challenge was to challenge myself, mentally, and I can say without doubt that I achieved that. Pushing my comfort zones to new limits, seeing how I would cope in these groups of people. Getting to know complete strangers, and trying not to pre-judge how things would work out. 

I have to say that my early judgements of some were terribly wrong, failing to see that some of the personas were simply social facades, masks, worn to please others. Discovering the people behind the masks were nothing like the person who masqueraded whilst wearing it, was rewarding and a bit of a wake up call. It is something I have done for years myself, put on a face to make others think I was someone else, but completely failed to see (until now) others doing it. 

I have learned I can make new friends, without the need to be the fake me, my genuine and laid bare persona is acceptable to others, and there are far more people out there, going through similar struggles and dilemmas than I first realised. I just hope they are all aware of their situations, and in control of what is going on around them.

Men fighting with mental demons is real, VERY real, and if you take a moment to look carefully, the signs are right there to see....

How are YOU today?