We set off at about three in the afternoon with our camping tents, sleeping bags, lots of water for the journey, some spare clothes to last a week and a lot of dry food from FareShares. Both our bike racks were fully loaded, with two pannier bags and the tents and sleeping bags on top.
We tried to follow the bike route from Greenwich alongside the Thames to the East. Greenwich is a lovely sight, with big buildings with their big lawns bordering a wide avenue. D. got worried quite early on, seeing that we were advancing about one mile per hour: «We need to get faster.»
The bike route we needed to follow goes all along the river Thames. A wall on our right, the river on our left. Some times we could see the houses facing the river, and some times said houses were just a few metres away from the water. «If there is a flood», I thought, «these people are going to be deeply affected.»
The Thames seemed a dumping site on the stretch we biked along. There were various bad smells for most of the time. «Can you imagine, wake up every single morning of your life with this smell?» At least there is an unusual sight from the houses facing the river. But I bet the people living in them are not there by choice.
We did want to bike faster but the bike route did not allow for this. The «cycle path» is shared with pedestrians and is actually too narrow for most of its length, even for a single bike with an unusual load. We had to go round sharp corners with no visibility at all, so we had to almost stop every time the path cut a corner. Which was quite often as we were made to surround entire buildings, away from the river side, because it had been just impossible to build a narrow path between them and the river itself.
We saw what looked like a massive bridge being built, but we didn’t see any one working on it. It looked like a phantom, specially knowing that the last bridge on the river Thames as you travel East is Tower Bridge …
Shortly after this weird bridging construction, we ended up on an «on-road» cycle path. Which means you are still following the cycle route but you are on a normal road, sharing it with cars and other vehicles. If you don’t want to loose the cycle route you need to follow the small signs placed on existing posts like electricity masts. However the signs are placed in such hidden places some times, or just get misplaced by the local kids, that it is inevitable to loose the bike route. Which we did, every time such route was on the road. Some times we found it eventually, when the road crossed the bike lane by chance: «Hey, there it is! Look over there, that small sign! It says ‘bike route’, doesn’t it?»
Once we got on the country side, the bike route, when off-road, turned into a gravel path.
The way they deter cars even motorbikes from using the cycle path is by placing weird gates only pedestrians and cyclists can negotiate. However, with the bulky luggage we were carrying, each gate was a challenge and an annoying delay. On most occasions it was enough to lift one wheel at a time. On two occasions, however, we had to lift the whole bike to get it over the barriers. To do this we had to undo the whole packaging on our racks. We decided that this way of biking would be ok-ish to spend the day with your children doing nothing other than enjoying the cycling, but it is definitely not a reasonable way to go from point A to point B.
And of course things can always get worse. At a certain point, the path turned from a nicely paved lane into a gravel track. Which can be ideal for walking your dog or riding your horse, but on a city bicycle, this means punctures on your tyres.
The first puncture was just a matter of fact. When you are on a long ride, you know you are going to have them. We had overtaken some bikers who looked like they were doing what you are supposed to do on these tracks, which is just ride for the sake of it without needing to go anywhere. As we were unloading the whole rack to put the bike upside down to fix the puncture, they rode past us with an understanding smile on their faces.
«I’m so glad at least this happened in this busy path, it actually feels safe. Imagine you were here on your own. And there is still sun light.» Always looking at the bright side.
Then we run out of water.
Once up on the bike and when we found ourselves on a normal road again, I wanted to get in a pub that I saw on the road side but D. didn’t like the idea.
«We ‘need’ water.»
«Look at your clothes.»
«You look like a hippy.»
«So do you.»
«I don’t think hippies are welcome in pubs around here. Really, not safe. Come on, we will find some petrol station.»
Petrol stations usually have a tab that is publicly accessible. We continued biking hoping to see one.
We didn’t, so when we saw a couple of men walking, and although D. still didn’t like the idea, I asked them:
«Turn left there, then a couple of miles, there is a pub there, and it’s all right.»
We didn’t follow their directions. Once sure they couldn’t hear us, D. thought I needed the explanation:
«You heard it? ‘That’ pub is all right, which means, not all pubs are all right.»
We found the bike track again, with gravel and rocks, and I got a puncture again. Unload bike, turn it upside down, take tube out, find puncture, fix puncture, put tube in, turn bike upside up, reload. D. started to walk away as a warm up. When was ready to move, I looked up, smiled at him and walked towards him myself. Suddenly, this noise. Pssssss…
«What’s that noise?»
» – – » (…ssssss…)
«What – is – that – F*****G NOISE!!»
«I mean, I actually paid ‘extra’ for an ‘anti-puncture’ inner tube and tyre. I don’t understand, I just do ‘not’ understand.»
I fixed the third puncture of the day as dusk approached. There were no bikers passing by any more.
Up on the bike again, and again following the bike track, we ended up on a road again, and again ended up loosing the cycle route. We found ourselves in a suburban looking neighbourhood and as we were checking our map, we heard some voices behind some nearby bushes. They sounded like a bunch of kids and, aware of our vulnerability, we got a bit scared. We decided to «just get out of here» to a safe place where to check the map, but once we were away from that neighbourhood we just continued biking.
Again almost by chance, we found the cycle path once more. It was dark by then, and the track was deserted. There were trees around us but we needed our lights to watch out for rocks on the track, so everything else surrounding us was just a more or less homogeneous mixture of dark shades. Then we noticed the wind on our faces. We could see the sky all around us, no mountain, no obstacle to see the sky in front, behind, or sideways. Maybe just a bunch of tree crowns to one side. Or were they clouds?
«Oh, how I wish we could see this view in the daylight! I bet it is an astonishing one.»
I continued in silence, watching for rocks that could still make another puncture. Useless. When there are only rocks and gravel, there is nothing you can do about it. Fourth puncture.
This time we had to use all our bike lights to see what we were doing. D.’s bike to its side, my white light on top of his pannier bag, my red light on top of a rock, his red light on another rock and D. holding his white light, all pointing at my back wheel.
The bike route lead us to a «B» road and we decided not to try to get off-road again, but try to get to our destination as soon as possible. The «B» road was completely deserted; only a car overtook us in about an hour. The rest of the time, we rode side by side.
«I wouldn’t do this on my own. It feels just so much safer when some one else is with you.»
«Yes. But it is only the sensation. The fact that I am here with you as opposed to not being does not make your situation much safer.»
«Yeah, and vice versa. It is just psychological.»
Sometimes, specially down hill, we gained speed. Suddenly a different kind of shade appeared in the middle of the road. It adopted different shapes as our bike lights approached it. My heart stopped. We did not speak, we did not stop. We did not even slow down. A second before riding swiftly past it, I realised what it was and also realised that I was not breathing.
«A branch!!», I sighed in relief.
We quickly left it behind and I became aware of just how fast we wee riding. After a few more miles, we felt like speaking again:
«You saw that thing, didn’t you?»
«Yes, the branch.»
«Was it a branch? Are you sure?»
«Yes. At the beginning I thought it was a deer, and that I was just seeing its horns, but no, it was just a branch.»
«I thought it was somebody!»
«But in any case, we were not going to stop, were we?»
We were too scared and aware of how unsafe our situation was.
We finally ended up on the «A» road we were looking for, full of roundabouts. On one of them, we would have to turn left and approach the camp on a secondary road. It was past midnight but lorries and cars overtook us continuously. I let D. ride ahead of me. His rear light and his reflector jacket stood out against the complete darkness.
We hit the roundabouts. Roundabouts are tricky when you are on a bike and sharing the road with speedy vehicles. But traffic was not dense and we didn’t have any problems. Until we got to the second last one. A car was approaching the roundabout from the first exit. My first instinct was to allow it to go, then enter the roundabout, even though we had priority. Then I realised the car didn’t have its lights on, and was actually stationary. As I got closer, I noticed the bright colours on it and realised it was a police car.
«Now we know we are on the correct road! And we’re getting closer!»
We were both smiling, happy to finally arrive, and fantasising with the good night sleep ahead of us. It was about one in the morning and we had been cycling for about ten hours.