The best of times, the worst of times

I’m sure I have mentioned before that life on the bike, cycling most days, has it’s ups and downs. Well, last week I had the whole rollercoaster in the space of 24 hours – arguably the worst day on the bike, and I could make a decent argument for it being one of the best days. Let me explain…

After taking a few days rest in Istanbul, to avoid the crazy traffic cycling out the other side, I took a local’s advice and caught the ferry south to begin the next part of the journey on quieter roads. The advice paid off and I spent my time on peaceful roads through small towns. I was cycling towards the central part of Turkey, around the capital, a high plateau compared to the rest of the country. Over a few days I cycled from sea level over steadily rising, rolling hills to an altitude higher than the highest peak in the UK.

Each day my GPS told me I’d broken my previous record for the most elevation climbed in a single day, and soon my legs were starting to tell me the same, aching more than they had since my first weeks on the bike. Starting to think I was due a rest day, and my clothes were overdue a clean, I decided to divert to the capital, Ankara, and booked to stay at a hostel. Two days to cycle 100 miles or so, should be plenty of time I thought.

The next day, I woke up still feeling tired, my legs still aching. I was camped part-way up a hill (always a mistake) so I began the day climbing, and it was a painfully slow crawl. It was all I could do that day to creep up the hills, and let gravity do the work on the other side. I limped along to the next town, after covering around 40 miles I called it a day. I checked in to a hotel for only the second time on the trip and collapsed on a moderately comfortable bed.

As I lay there, I was sure I wouldn’t be able to cycle the rest of the way the following day – more than 60 miles with a lot of climbing. On top of that, I knew the weather was supposed to turn overnight; a temperature drop of more than 10 degrees leaving the mercury at low single figures, and a forecast of rain all day. I walked down to the desk and tried to ask if there was a bus from the town to Ankara. With the help of Google translate, I got my point across and the man on the desk said he would check for me.

I then set about aiding my body’s recovery. I walked out in to the streets and found the nearest restaurant. When I sat down, I saw that the menu had pictures – always a bonus! I saw a stew served with rice which looked like it would be perfectly filling. When the waiter came over I fumbled with the pronunciation but he interpreted my pointing. He seemed hesitant and I eventually understood that he was explaining to me that was a meal for two people. “Perfect!” I exclaimed. He gave me a look that told me he was sure I still hadn’t understood him but took my order nonetheless. When it came, it was served in the large pot it had been cooked in with a wooden spoon to take one ‘portion’ at a time. It also came with a large salad and, like every other meal in Turkey, a whole loaf of bread, and when I had finished I ambled back to the hotel at a slow pace, completely sated.

As I walked in, the man on the desk handed me a piece of paper with all the information about the bus – the departure time, which number, and where to catch it from. I took the information and thanked him, although as I held the piece of paper I wasn’t sure I was going to need it. I went back up to my room and planned the route on the bike – if I add some miles on here, I can remove some of the climbing there… Eventually I had a route I was happy with and I fell asleep.

I woke with renewed vigour. My legs still ached but they felt strong, I felt positive and keen to get on the bike. Some days it takes more motivation to get on the bike than others and I can’t always say where it comes from but it needs to be a choice. The day before, I felt like I didn’t have any options; I had to be in Ankara the next day and had to cycle without knowing if I could do it. Now, with a potential bus trip, I had options.

I duly packed the information about the bus in my handlebar bag and attached it to the bike, like the person that has given up smoking but keeps a pack of cigarettes in their pocket to reduce the craving. Wheeling out of the hotel, a local sat on a step waved me over for a broken conversation.
I was cycling to Ankara, I said.
It’s cold, he said.
I know, I said.
And with that I hopped on my bike and cycled off. As if to complete the metaphor, and not just for the purposes of an anecdote, I cycled past the bus station on my way out of town. About 30 minutes until the bus left.

It was cold. I had three layers on, my Buff bandana around my neck, and trousers rather than shorts but the cold air was biting. My fingerless gloves were the first weak point to be exploited and I tucked my hands in to fists on the handlebars to protect my fingers from the wind.

I was pleasantly surprised on the first hill however, to find my legs felt good and they carried me up at a steady pace. On the downhill I was flying! What a machine my bike was, I thought, to feel this good to ride after more than 4000km. Surely the cars and trucks were noticing how fast this little bike sharing their road was going, I wondered. Wanting to make hay while the sun shined (strictly metaphorically, as a light rain had started to fall), I cycled for nearly two hours before I stopped in a town. 25 miles down, nearly halfway.

Wet through and cold, I had enough food with me but the warm lights of a nearby café drew me in, and I wandered in to take shelter from the rain, heavier now. I sat under the heater and hung my jacket and gloves over the nearby chairs as I drank tea and ate warm soup. A temporary nirvana.

Eventually I had to bite the bullet and go back out to battle the elements again. My attempts to dry my clothes had been in vain and I hesitantly pulled on my damp gloves. Walking out the door, the rain was now heavy and the temperature felt like it had dropped a degree or two with my muscles having cooled slightly. My first turns of the pedals were slow but purposeful, as I was about to hit the main hill, the crux of the route. I was peering through the small gap between my hood and my bandana, cycling against what was becoming a small river at the side of the road. My trousers, shoes, and socks were soaked through, and the cold air sapped my body heat. As the hill ramped up, I wasn’t sure if it was sweat or rain covering my face, yet I could barely feel my toes anymore. I saw the peak of the hill and I pushed on, knowing there was a downhill and flat riding the other side.

As I crested the hill I slowed, exhausted, to take a quick, celebratory swig of chilled water before slipping the bottle away and gripping the handlebars for the descent. I could barely push the levers to work the gears up, my fingers now with as little feeling as my toes but the joy of the effortless speed meant I didn’t care much. I was checking off the miles in my head and as the road flattened out, I realised I could already see the start of the city! 20 miles to go. I push the pedals over to keep the momentum up. 15 miles. I confidently move through the traffic, high on positivity. 10 miles. Feeling my legs start to tire, but I can rest when I get there. 5. Close now, navigating turn by turn, I’m on the right road, I roll to a stop. I’m there.

I don’t go in to the hostel right away, but drink my bottle dry. I lean forward on the handlebars and wonder at how I was able to cycle so far, so fast, after struggling so much before. I smile. If I write a blog about this, I thought, at some point I will have to say, what a difference a day makes.

Found this guy at the side of the road on a cold, wet day

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