It wasn’t until I rolled out my sleeping bag in the Heathrow departures lounge, all ready for my early morning flight to Seattle, that I realized how tired I was. This year so far has been a non-stop frenzy of book launch, book tour, Adventure Syndicate launch (which, as well as all of the admin and bureaucracy, consisted of a 500-mile ride around the North Coast of Scotland) and occasional brief attempts to earn some money and ride my bike in between times. I’d spent half a day in London, giving a talk on ultra-distance racing with Juliana Buhring (my better-looking and more famous friend), and I was due in Oceanside, California on the 10th of June, to support Juliana through her attempt on RAAM (“the world’s toughest bike race”, or so it claims…).
But I had a precious three-week window between the two, and I’d decided to spend it cycling down the length of the US West Coast to get to the start of the race, picking up where I left off last winter. If I was going to be trapped in a car for almost two weeks, I wanted to be good and tired, plus there’s the fact that I’ve signed up for the Transcontinental again, at least partly as a pretext for spending most of the spring and summer on very long training rides.
It wasn’t until the first day of the ride, rolling through the glistening greenery of the Olympic peninsula with my old friend Nhatt, that I remembered this ride had been many years in the making. Back in 2010, two years after Nhatt had inspired me to have a go at being a bike messenger (and I’d found it quite suited me), we’d plotted to ride from Vancouver to San Francisco together the following spring. But then Nhatt won a prestigious art scholarship, and I got carried away and decided to cycle round the world instead, and the ride I had wanted to do for longer than any other got shelved indefinitely. But now – here we were.
I reluctantly waved goodbye to Nhatt at Olympia (after extracting a promise from her to come and mountain bike across Wales with me in 2017), and carried on alone, musing upon how strangely things sometimes work out. Back in 2010, the West Coast would have been my First Big Adventure. Now it felt like nothing more than a holiday. The tarmac was smooth, the bike lanes broad, the coffee stops frequent, the drivers forgiving, the language familiar, and the peanut butter plentiful.
“I should be blogging about this” I thought. But I found I had nothing to say. I’d been so busy before departure that I hadn’t even got round to announcing this particular trip on social media – and as the days rolled on I found I was avoiding Twitter and Instagram almost entirely. What, six years ago, I had envisaged as a grand expedition, had instead become a welcome opportunity to slip through the cracks. I was tired of reporting my every move; of examining every vista for its photographic value; of what I sometimes think of as my writerly simultaneous translation, where I ride along automatically converting every observation and experience into language in my head, turning it this way and that to see how it’ll sound, tuning and tweaking and topping and tailing, until I’ve crafted what will eventually spill out of me in a long and rambling blog post, some weeks hence. This time, there was nothing but silence.
I enjoyed the small talk in small-town diners, whilst also revelling in the anonymity of being nothing out of the ordinary. Last time I toured on this continent I was soon known up and down the Alaska Highway as “that crazy biker from England”, since few have ever ever been reckless enough to attempt that route in winter. But Route 101 is a cycle-tourer’s highway. Several times a day a fellow traveller would whizz past me on the other side of the road, and we’d greet each other with a shout and a wave, instantly friends the way London cycle couriers used to be, even before they’d properly met – but rarely would we stop to chat, because there’d be three more just over the next bluff. The regulars in the diners where I lingered over my morning coffee were friendly, but not over-curious. They had seen my type plenty of times before.
These were days of sunshine and solitude. I avoided the beery bustle of the hiker-biker campsites, preferring to spread my bivvy bag out in the fragrant undergrowth that skirted the beaches and fall asleep listening to the thundering Pacific roarers pounding the sand a few metres away. Often I’d wake up in the middle of the night, opening my eyes to a bright canopy of stars and thinking about how very far away the rest of the world seemed to be.
And very far away it was. Most nights no one knew where I was, and most days my only commitment was to ride far enough to stay on schedule. And riding was easy on roads like these. I’d roll my sleeping bag away as dawn broke and the first few dog walkers started strolling the beaches, then pedal until the rising sun began to break through the morning fog. I’d reward my efforts with pancakes, eggs, bacon and endless coffee refills, before getting back on the road and riding for the rest of the day – because what better thing was there to do?
The mossy forests of Washington State segued into the jagged coastline of Oregon, before the road turned inland and I rolled along the Avenue of Giants, cooling my sunburn in the dappled shade of the world’s tallest and oldest trees. Any twinges of guilt I felt at not stopping with the other tourists, to gawk and take photos, were easily dispelled by the conviction that speeding past it on a bicycle was exactly the right way to experience all of this scenery. The flickering shadows of the redwoods were a veritable oasis to one who had spent the last few days scorching her skin under a cloudless sky, and their height and girth dwarfed me and my bicycle far more than they did everyone else’s camper vans and SUVs. And since these trees had been amply photographed by everyone else, I didn’t see any need to stop and join the crowds. I carried on, watching the scenery change around me, eventually rejoining the coast after a whole afternoon of climbing and half an hour of descending, knowing that the salty breeze and the glistening blue ocean were far more refreshing a sight to me than to any of the drivers who had pulled over at the side of the road to admire it.
Sometimes you don’t want to stop, you just want to ride. I rode. And kept riding. The swooping California roads made it easy to cover 120, 130, 150 miles in a day. And I knew that awaiting me in LA was one of the world’s great international food scenes (plus friends eager to help me replenish my calorie deficit with all-you-can-eat sushi and Korean barbeque) – and then in Oceanside I had nothing to look forward to but sitting in a car for two weeks, following someone else as she cycled across America. So I exhausted myself quite happily, ignoring my sore back and aching muscles as I sped along the final stretch of coastline towards Malibu, thinking instead how lucky I was to have ridden so many of the world’s great coast roads in the past year – Italy’s Amalfi Coast back in November, Scotland’s North Coast 500 last month, and now this – and gazing inland at the looming Sierra Nevadas, planning future rides without even meaning to. Over the years I’ve developed a knee-jerk reaction to mountain ranges – and even bends in the road. I want to know what’s on the other side.
But that was a ride for another day. I rejoined Juliana in Oceanside, ready to set out on her big adventure, and all of a sudden it was as if no time had passed at all since we said goodbye to each other outside Liverpool Street station. The intervening three weeks slipped away into a blur of dappled sunlight, sparkling ocean, and endless cups of coffee, and I felt only slightly regretful that I could remember so little of it. This had been the whole point. To switch my mind off for a while; to ride and not to think; to let things slide for a while; to coast.
By Emily Chappell