For many people their first bicycle tour is often short. On my first one I cycled with two friends from Manchester to Paris. This only lasted a week and needless to say as it was quite impromptu I did no mental preparation. Having cycled no further than 50 miles in a day before setting off, this could have been a recipe for disaster. Luckily apart from the first two days –which involved a lot of physical pain- I found it very easy to cope with and adjust to life on the road.
Looking back I think the reason I adjusted so well is because the route and mileage was very regimented. We knew where we had to be at the end of each day, so that we would not fall off schedule and so we would catch our ferry from Dover to Calais. This stopped the trip being so open ended and reduced the amount of decisions that we needed to make. This made it a physical strain rather than a mental one. Once our bodies got used to pushing big miles this meant there was no stress and the whole trip was very carefree.
In planning our trip around Europe we tried to mirror the feelings from the trip to Paris. We both loved that week cycling; it offered us something that we had never really achieved from a holiday before. However with a trip so long lasting almost a month it would be impossible to set daily targets and find campsites prior to stay in. This immediately presented us with a problem we didn’t realise at the time. Our trip would be a lot more open ended without the regimen of daily targets but a monthly target instead, how would that work?
We assumed that 100 miles a day with four rest days whenever we needed them would cover us and give us the structure we needed to have a good ride. In reality we were both very underprepared.
It was a hectic week before departure finalising details and getting last bits of kit, little thought was being given to the actual cycling. Furthermore our bikes were being striped down and serviced, preventing us from going on practice fully laden rides. This meant we had not been on a practice ride with all our gear to get used to the bikes. Furthermore I particularly found the open ending of the trip at the beginning quite hard to get my head around.
After the first day of cycling I hit a big mental low, I had the flu and was finding illness combined with the strain of cycling; the big mental highs and lows of the day hard to cope with. That along with the fact that we were only one day through, had 3000km left to cycle; I felt like it should be the last day. It’s times like these when teamwork and being with your friend really helps. We both realised that with the huge mental highs and lows that we both experienced each day the other person could really help. Realising that someone is going through the same struggle as you is very reassuring and this is why I recommend going on cycle tours with your mates. It makes the whole experience really fun and enjoyable. With a friend you can share what you are thinking, get an opinion and work though problems together. It improves your interpersonal skills and shows you who your true friends are.
We were not mentally prepared for what lay ahead of us. However it’s amazing what a night’s sleep can do to you. We arose the next morning and decided our new plan would be ‘to take everything as it comes’ if that meant stopping early or pushing big miles so be it. Eventually we became used to the big highs and lows of each day. They still happened however we now knew how to deal with them and to deal with them. We started to have fun. Thank god otherwise I don’t know how we would’ve made it! After the first few nights finding places to wild camp became second nature, reducing the stress of finding somewhere to sleep. As we became more adjusted and split our trip into shorter achievable goals we became more relaxed and had a lot more fun.
It is now clear to me how important mental preparation is on a long trip. More important as when people ask me “what was the hardest part of your trip?” I shock them when I say that it wasn’t the cycling but how mentally draining it was. It’s hard to fathom but overcoming that first week of being in a dark place mentally was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do and I am sure Tom would agree with me. So if I could offer a piece of advice from something that I have learnt, it would be to make sure you have thought through your expedition and that you are mentally prepared for what lies ahead.