10 weeks ago I was on the cusp of completing four years of work; I was only days away from passing through the final stages of the PhD process. I had a new job and life was busy but I must have been misguidedly concerned about all the time I was about to have on my hands because when I saw an ad looking for 2 people to participate in a 100 mile bike ride for the charity Prison Fellowship I immediately jumped at the chance.
The tall Australian I’m married to was working at home the day I saw the ad and so no time was lost in telling him that I thought we should sign up. He pointed out the fact that neither of us had bikes suitable for a long road ride (true), that we already had quite a lot going on in life (true), that I was not really fit at all having spent the previous three months eschewing all physical activity in a bid to finish the thesis (true), and that I had never ridden that far on a bike (true).
Ever the optimist I took that as a positive response, forwarded our entry fees and signed us up.
Why, why, why, why, why ?
That was what I was asking myself only 48 hours later for the following reasons:
- I had discovered there was a time limit on the ride. That was a bit of a shock. We had persuaded ourselves that we could do a nice steady 100 miles with a good lunch stop half way. But the ride is #RideLondon. It’s a ride of 30,000 people and follows the route of the 2012 Olympic Cycling Road Race. It’s not a race but there is a time limit. You’ve got to complete the ride in 8 1/2 hours, because there is a race that follows the charity ride and the slow riders have to be off the road. There are points along the route where if you are too slow you will be turned back or taken off the route and told to get a train home. Suddenly speed was of the essence.
- I’d downloaded a whole heap of training plans for ‘riding a century’. I became terrified that we had committed to doing a bike ride that was so serious it even had a categorisation applied to it (see ‘century’ above) and it seemed to involve hours and hours of cycling to prepare for.
- In those 48 hours I’d turned to Google to fill in the blanks in my cycling knowledge and I’d read articles on chaffing and chamois butter and cadence and ‘bonking’ (honestly that is a technical cycling term equivalent to the runner’s term of ‘hitting the wall’) and other things I didn’t even know were a thing. I was clearly way out of my depth.
- Having dragged myself round 9.8 miles of road on a mountain bike I was pretty sure that 100 miles was not going to be possible.
The other ‘Why?’ you might be asking is ‘Why would you do a crazy thing like riding 100 miles to support a charity for people in prison? Aren’t there better causes to support?’ That is a good question, and it’s one that myself and the tall Australian have been asked a number of time, and I’ll try to answer it in two parts.
Part 1) In the middle of my ‘Why?’ questions I was on a train when 2 guys got on and started putting CDs in envelopes. We got chatting and it turned out they were running music production workshops for teens who were on the brink of getting into trouble. They were trying to give them a sense of value and purpose. The men were doing it because they had both spent a lot of time in prison having experienced very unstable and difficult childhoods, and whilst in prison (one of them on his 33rd prison sentence) they were met by people who came in to visit in the prison who believed they could change the stories they’d been living. With the support of those people both inside and outside of prison both men were now going straight and were determined to help kids to make better choices.
Part 2) My PhD research is about the way children are treated in our country when their mothers are sent to prison, so I spend a lot of my time thinking about prison and prisoners and their families, and what happens to people when they spend time in prison, and what happens to them when they come out of prison. I believe as a result of all that I have learned from working in this area in the past five years , that prisons are a rough place and our tendency to forget the intrinsic human value of those who offend against society doesn’t do anyone any good. Prison Fellowship is one of a number of charities that do much needed important work. Through their restorative justice projects, helping those in prison maintain family ties throughout their sentences, and befriending and supporting prisoners, they try to provide the supports which enable people to come out of prison to a different kind of life rather than becoming stuck in the endless cycle of re-offending which is the norm. I am a big believer in second chances having been granted a few myself, and I love that Prison Fellowship believes that everyone matters and anyone can change and try again.
So the answer to the ‘Why do this for Prison Fellowship?’ question became the reason to overcome all of my other doubts about this challenge. And so we began training and in the process we’ve seen some transformation…
I used to be a person who rode a bike. Maybe to the shops or to the station. 10 weeks in I’m beginning to become a cyclist. Friends have loaned both myself and the tall Australian road bikes and we are deeply grateful. It was a huge relief to discover that a road bike really increases your pace! We are Strava junkies, measuring time and distance and mph assiduously, and becoming inappropriately frustrated when for some reason our phones fail to record a particularly fast ride.
I am someone who loves my bed in the mornings I’ve adapted to early rising in order to get out on the rides before the traffic. 6am is pretty normal, and 4.45am has happened when I’ve needed to get in a long ride early in the day. I’ve got padded shorts and chamois butter. I’ve worked out how many energy bars I need to eat, and have (as the magazine which came with entry suggests) learned how to eat and drink whilst riding.
I now think nothing of riding 10, 20 or even 30 miles and have made it to 76 miles by myself. We plan our weekends around cycle rides. I’ve practised the hilly sections of the ride once already (Leith Hill and Box Hill in Surrey) but as we will hit them after 58 and 68 miles of cycling, I’m going to have another go at them the week before the event as part of a long ride. I am voluntarily riding up big hills multiple times. I’ve discovered that if the sight of a hill makes me want to cry and get off my bike then it’s probably the energy levels talking and I need to eat and drink something immediately, and save the tears for later. I’ve had two punctures, a broken finger and a damaged ulnar nerve leading to a loss of control in my left hand. In order to keep training whilst injured I’ve been loaned a ‘turbo trainer’ which turns my bike into a stationary exercise bike. It’s a little dull staring at the same patch of grass but that disadvantage has been offset by the fact that riding with no hands allows me to read a book and drink a cup of tea, all whilst getting in a good ride. I’ve learned that my body can do way more than I thought it could, and that it is possible to learn to do new things even at my age! I have degenerating discs in my back along with some pain and fatigue issues and have even had to stop swimming because of shoulder issues, but it’s been amazing to discover that cycling works for me and has allowed me to increase my fitness and strength without pain. I’ve discovered that cycling at speed is a huge stress release and a great way of working out feelings that need to go somewhere! I’ve gained confidence in tackling physical challenges and in setting out to explore places I’ve never been before armed only with a phone, water and some energy bars. Cycling is a great way to see the countryside – it’s not as slow as walking so you see much more, but without the speed and encasement of a car you notice so much more. I think it’s going to be hard to stop once the event is over.If you think you are past new physical challenges or experiences, can I encourage you to just have a go. Find something that motivates you and then set about getting there little by little. Bodies get old and creaky but I suspect most of us can do a whole lot more than we think we can! Finally, I really want to thank everyone who has supported us so far with bikes and equipment, or who have joined us for rides, or donated to Prison Fellowship through our giving page. Thank you so much – we really appreciate your generosity. We have set ourselves a fundraising target of £1000 and with 2 weeks to go we are pretty much half way to that amount. (link is here if you would like to add to that total). Hopefully we’ll hit the target and complete the ride! I’ll let you know how it goes.
So here’s to cycling and second chances and generous friends and new opportunities and last but certainly not least … chamois butter