‘Getting back into the saddle and keeping going is the key’

‘Why drive when you can cycle? Why cycle when you can walk?’

I’d always agree with the first part of this eco-slogan, but not the second. As far as I’m concerned, pedalling on two wheels is easier than putting one foot in front of the other. Whether that means nipping out to the shops or slogging uphill on a cold winter’s day, cycling has always been my default mode of travel: from childhood adventures around the South Downs to a post-A-Level trip from Sussex to the Loire Valley, careering down precipitous trails through the Andes in Colombia, and most recently larking around on fat bikes along Mozambique’s glorious Indian Ocean beaches.

Usually, and if done sensibly, cycling is a safe way to get around.

Usually. I’ve had more than my fair share of scrapes, bumps and breakdowns over the years, I reckon. We’d only gone about five miles on our grand expedition to the Loire Valley, for instance, when my whole pedal crank fell off as we battled through the mean streets of Worthing. A few cups of tea from friendly residents later, plus a lift to the local bike shop, and we were on our way again. Another time, on my way to a party in London, a car pulled out in front of me and I bounced off the bonnet. That bonnet probably saved any broken bones, but my main concern as I staggered to my feet was to find my bike – which was, remarkably, still carrying the unbroken bottle of booze for the party. And on one memorable Nello fundraiser ride, I was startled to see my front wheel rolling down the road ahead of me as I bumped over a steep humpback hill.

Getting back into the saddle and keeping going, though, is the key to cycling. As with many of life’s challenges, don’t you think?

As a family, both our two kids went through the evolutionary phases of bike baby seats, tagalongs and stabilisers before finally hitting the fully fledged bike. We started with day trips to Epping Forest and Lea Valley, then ventured out into the wide-open countryside of Norfolk and Cornwall, before hiring bikes on foreign shores in Mallorca and around the Île de Ré in France (another great family cycling holiday destination, by the way – Bradt commissioning editors, please note!).

Our kids have grown up and long since flown the nest, so now most of my cycling is solo or with friends. We’ve even spliced together a reading group with a bike club and called ourselves the BBC (Bicycle Book Club), doing monthly rides around the Devon countryside then flopping into a convenient pub or café to talk about a book that we take it in turns to read. From Wind in the Willows to the Inner Life of Cows, our literary tastes are broad if not deep. Though curiously, as yet, we haven’t found a cycling classic.

Social cycling

Many of us look set to holiday on our own fair isles this summer, giving us all yet another good reason for taking our bikes with us. And not just for holidays either. A recent medical study revealed that cycling regularly could add four years to your lifespan. Playing badminton and tennis gives us even more ‘extra time’, apparently.

But cycling is also a wonderfully social pastime. Ok, so you can keep a fair ‘social distance’ from others when on your own bike, but you’re still guaranteed to meet plenty of people along the way. On busy routes, such as Cornwall’s massively popular Camel Trail, there may be long snaking lines of happy families pedalling beside the glorious Camel Estuary. On quieter back lanes you might meet long-distance adventurers, bikes sagging under the weight of multiple panniers and assorted bags, even map readers or smartphones strapped to handlebars. One of the hardier members of our BBC gang even managed to fit a telescopic fishing rod on to his tour bike, enabling him to feed himself en route during his expedition up the coast of northern Europe and around the Norwegian fjords.

There’s also the escapist wanderers, also apparently carrying their whole life possessions with them, as they seek their own personal nirvana (or sometimes fleeing their own personal hell). Earlier this year, for instance, I met Aaron Mackie, puffing his way down a huge steep hill near Kimmeridge in Dorset, lugging two enormous backpacks, front and back. He had recently started a mammoth two-year expedition around the whole coast of the UK, raising awareness for mental illness. He told me that eating only organic food keeps him going, and he also extolled the benefits of coconut oil in your diet. ‘Don’t believe what people tell you, it’s great!’ Best of luck Aaron, wherever you are now: I hope you’ve managed to lighten your load.

Cycling for a cause

Sounds like an idyllic picture, right? Wrong. Cycling can be really, really hard. Last winter, soaked to the skin after a day’s ride in relentless rain around the Kensey Valley near Launceston, I flopped gratefully into my car, as heavy raindrops battered the roof. Reflections about the rights and wrongs of eco-travel didn’t seem quite so important. Driving home, I found myself wondering, ‘Why am I doing this?’

The simple answer was that I was researching the routes for Bradt’s new cycling guide to Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. That had been ample motivation, having cycled all over the county along some beautiful routes; from Land’s End to the Lizard, bouncing around MTB trails in Cardinham Woods and more. But at that point, with winter daylight hours getting noticeably shorter by the day, and with another COVID lockdown looming, to be honest, I was running out of energy and needed more air in my metaphorical tyres.

Later that day though, the TV news flashed up the latest progress of Leeds Rhinos rugby player Kevin Sinfield’s awesome marathons. He was fundraising for his former teammate, Rob Burrow, who was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease (MND) in 2019. Sinfield had run seven marathons in seven days, and since then has raised nearly £3 million for the Motor Neurone Disease Association to help combat the incurable degenerative condition. Sinfield brought MND to the public attention with his heroic efforts in aid of his friend, who by then could hardly walk, but was still only in his 30s.

Rob Burrow’s illness brought back memories of my dear friend Helena, who succumbed to MND after a long struggle. I had known Helena since uni days; we had fallen out of touch over the years but I had been lucky enough to visit her again, shortly before she passed away. It was heartbreaking to see this fading shadow of the vibrant energetic woman Helena had once been. But it was also mind-blowing how positive she remained right up to the end.

So how could I moan about a little rain? Heroes such as Burrow carried on regardless, still being themselves, not being labelled by their illness. Never mind the fact that the world was in the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic. I had nothing to complain about, cycling around the beautiful Cornish countryside, while most others were getting on with proper jobs and all the many unnamed NHS heroes were busy keeping us alive.

But yes, I did feel a tad guilty at the triviality of my rambling rides. Last year, as Covid raged apparently unstoppably, many wondered if life would ever be the same again. Not just a pandemic but an existential crisis. So then, seeing Sinfield running, I decided I would also join up to the MND cause. Not that either of us could exactly save the human race, but at least we might be able to help towards someone one day finding a cure for this disease.

So, I dedicated the rest of my Cornwall rides to Helena, and set up my own fundraising page. With huge thanks to the generosity of friends and supporters, we also contributed towards the Motor Neurone Disease Association. Nothing like the amazing total that Sinfield amassed, but it was still a win-win all round: helping MND’s medical research and keeping me pedalling until I had completed all the cycle routes for the Bradt guide. Which, thankfully, I did, with the last route in Bude, up on the border with north Devon, completed just the day before the second lockdown hit last December.

As for me, now I’m looking forward to cycling around East Anglia, for the next Bradt guide. Happily, we have friends there so I hope we can do some cycling together. Also looking forward to the beautifully level lanes of the Norfolk Broads. And hopefully meeting more characters and adventures to experience along the way.


More information

Huw’s new book, Cycling in Cornwall & the Isles of Scilly, is available now with a 10% discount: