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Sunday, 21 September 2014

United Kingdom on a Bike.

As I sat at the steering wheel of a car back in 1973, the elderly looking driving instructor asked me to pause for a moment outside a house just off the main road, as on this warm weekday afternoon there was little traffic. He then proudly declared,
I was instructing this lady to drive when she invited me home, just there, and then she seduced me!
I then allowed him to finish the driving lesson, then afterwards decided not to have such a person sit next to me again, as I watched his vehicle, decorated with a prominent red "L" at each end, drive off. Thereafter I never sat at the wheel of a car again, as the other reason was that I had never gained enough confidence within myself to drive, let alone put up with a cocky driving instructor not long after our year-long relationship with my girlfriend dissolved.
So I took to the bicycle, which brought memories of my daily ride to and from school. Even on wet mornings, when Mum would have preferred me to use the school bus, I still found it exhilarating to feel the sense of independence riding on two wheels - and that despite of the lion's share of punctures which spoilt the ride, yet also the ability to learn how to repair and maintain the mechanical steed without taking it to the shop for repairs. After leaving school in 1968, I upgraded my mode of transport to a 70cc motorcycle, and on it passed the driving test which gave me access to a full motorcycle licence. But a few years later, while riding on the same main road where the house stood, a car in front suddenly stopped for no apparent reason, and to avoid a collision into the rear of the vehicle, I quickly spun the handlebars to the left, causing me to fly off the machine, leaving both of us lying on the road until another car arrived, and called the ambulance. For the next five days I was pampered and cared for in hospital.
I decided that I had enough of the road contest against other vehicles on the motorcycle, and returned to the bicycle. I recall the first cycle ride up a hill, and how puffed out I felt before I even reached the summit. No doubt about it, where fitness is concerned, the human body is like a bucket with a small hole at the bottom. If not constantly refilled, the pail would end up empty of water. Likewise, a sedentary lifestyle with a lack of strenuous exercise leaves the body devoid of stamina and general fitness.

But with cycling I have found it the most fulfilling mode of transport short of an aeroplane. To me it beats the motorcycle hands down. Riding a bicycle not only save expenses on fuel, maintenance, the tax disc and compulsory insurance, but bestows fitness. And so it happened over the following years when I upgraded to a faster racing bike, rather than just commute as I did at first, I began to take long distance and road time trials more seriously. There is something fulfilling about a Summer Sunday morning, getting up at six to mount a bike, and on clear, traffic-free roads, crack off 20-30 miles before breakfast, or on a couple of occasions, end the ride at the church, and in the premises, wash, change clothing and prepare breakfast - with full permission from the elders - and eat before the start of the service. These Sunday morning burn ups were training runs for the Big One - the End to End cycle ride along the whole length of Great Britain, a distance which is officially 874 miles 1,416 km but to various diversions and detours, more likely 900 miles or more.

I write this soon after the referendum for Scottish independence. The voting took place just two days before this blog was written. Our Prime Minister was in tension throughout that day. If the vote went in favour of independence, then there was this high chance that he would have had to resign from his Premiership. But much to his relief, the vote favoured remaining in the Union, which had been in existence for more than 300 years. This means that these three nations which makes up Great Britain -  Scotland, Wales and England -  remain under one flag (the Union Jack) one Monarch, one currency, one Government in Westminster, although the Scots now have its own Parliament in Holyrood. That means that no passports or customs are needed for border crossings, and now it looks certain to continue this way for a long time to come.

And so going back to 1990, when my buddy Gareth and I cycled the 874 miles southbound from John O'Groats on the northern tip of mainland Scotland, to Lands End on the western tip of Cornwall, with the distant view of the Scilly Isles barely visible thirty miles away on the horizon. And our ride could have been longer if a land bridge had connected mainland Scotland with the Orkneys, and furthermore, to the Shetlands, islands north of Scotland which aren't that far from the Artic Circle. A land bridge would have made the thousand-plus mile End-to End ride even more interesting. It would have started at the bleak treeless moors inhabited by flocks of screaming seagulls, puffins, and gannets - to the subtropical land of Lyonesse with its palm trees and bananas, together with vegetation and shrubbery unable to thrive across the rest of Britain, yet thanks to the exposure of the warm Gulf Stream, that part of the world would have been quite distinct from the rest of the UK.

We completed the cycle ride in just under two weeks, with a "day off" in the middle of the holiday to enjoy the sights of the Lake District National Park in Cumbria. But what we might have considered to be a focal point of he whole ride was the crossing of the border from Scotland into England. Where the huge blue sign towering above our heads reading, Welcome to Scotland was on one side of the road, on the other side, a much smaller white sign, up to chest level, simply read England - without the welcoming bit. Rather like the Start/Finish line painted across the driveway at the John O'Groats Hotel; the driveway is actually the terminus of the A9 which is the main through road south to Stirling, from there the road becomes a motorway into Edinbourgh. In turn there was no Start/Finish line painted across the narrow lane which marks the terminus of the A30 at Lands End. A sad fact considering that the A30 is one of the main artery roads into the West Country from a point within Greater London. Giving the impression of these two sets of contrasting examples, it looks to me that the Scots have more enthusiasm for the traveller than the English, particularly with the End-to-End cyclist and even for a rare hiker.

The traditional 874 mile End-toEnd route. However we rode from Inverness to Carlisle via Edinburgh, the hillier terrain made the ride more challenging.

The ride was easy at times, more difficult during other times, particularly with the hills and a headwind. It wasn't too bad in Scotland, where on the A9 north of Inverness, the main carriageway was so quiet, even during the so-called  morning rush hour, a single passing vehicle was something which happened at every few minutes, or even longer. On the other hand, the busy A38 out of Bristol towards Exeter not only had big hills, but also a strong south-westerly headwind which made the eighty-mile leg of the route a very gruelling ride, and to be honest, we were on the verge of throwing in the towel. Fortunately we stopped at a roadside restaurant, and the food revitalised our spirits as well as satisfied our hunger pangs. One of the topics discussed during the ride, and particularly from Bristol to Exeter, was how some of our educated, middle class pals in the church kept reminding us that because we were heading in a southerly direction, it was downhill all the way! Of course, when I first heard this, I thought such a statement was just a teasing joke. But seeing the seriousness of their attitude, I was beginning to wonder, with much surprise on my part, whether they were really into believing this. Even Gareth, at a coffee shop in Exeter City Centre, had began to wonder, and I made an effort to explain that the centre of gravity was at the core of the Earth, and not at the Equator, or the South Pole. This might have been the reason why pedalling was always a lot harder whenever the road headed skywards!

We popped a bottle of Champagne at Lands End, with the drink soaking me rather than drank. Although we would have liked to have crossed the Start/Finish line painted across the road, its absence did not spoil our jubilation. This shows the joy of pedal power in contrast to any motorised vehicle, whether motorbike or car.

Fast cycling was also the activity of the day when on a Bank Holiday, I would rise early, have breakfast, then ride fast to the coast, up to sixty miles away. Then spend the night at one of several coastal backpackers hostels before returning home. This, along with a number of triathlon events I took part in, between 1986 to 1991, five years of peak fitness. The combined swim, cycle, and run was still very new in the mid-eighties, and people like myself took part for the novelty of the sport. I even saw one elderly gentleman pedal furiously at one event, on a heavy roadster complete with a grocery basket under the handlebars. But as the sport evolved, super-fit men and women began to take their place at the front of the field, riding on fast, sleek bicycles worth thousands of pounds sterling. That was when participation in the triathlon began to lose its appeal by the mid nineties. What was at first a contest of physical endurance and camaraderie between participants, had metamorphosed into a speed race, where wetsuits replaced swimming trunks in the water, and the touring bike was replaced by sleek, lightweight, highly expensive machines. Yet during the 2012 London Olympics, I took time off work to watch both men and women's triathlon championships, as I previously watched other triathlon championship events with nostalgia and excitement.

Farnbourough Triathlon 1987.

Riding a bicycle (along with swimming and running) is a good illustration of the Christian life as a believer. As riding without a motor demands endurance, and speed if competing with others, so Paul the apostle exhorts us to run the race, keeping in sight of the Heavenly prize at the finish.

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown which will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last for ever. Therefore I do not run like a man who runs aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
1 Corinthians 9:24-27.

Paul compares the Christian life to that of a foot race, with just the winner getting the prize, a wreath of leaves which will deteriorate over time. In those days those finishing second and third received nothing, just as the competitor finishing in fourth place in today's sporting events just misses out on the medals (and to my opinion, the most frustrating position to finish.) But we are promised a crown which will last for ever. However, the prize mentioned in this context is not eternal life itself, but a crown won by walking in the power of the Holy Spirit. Disqualification has nothing to do with losing salvation and ending up in Hell, as some insist, but the loss of the heavenly crown, a prize - for that was what Paul was on about.

Our 1990 End-to-End cycle ride was very challenging. There were downhill parts where we just pedalled hard for a moment and then allowed gravity to send us flying down the hill at speed, especially aided by a tailwind. But there were other stretches of the route where we struggled uphill against a strong headwind. We rode in sunshine and in rain. Near Aviemore in the Scottish Highlands, my mate suffered the only tyre puncture of the whole journey. How fortunate, that I had the foresight to carry some tools and a repair outfit! Getting to Perth, our next stop, would have entailed a very long walk indeed. Then at Wigan, my chain decided to give up the ghost, but we managed to ride past a cycle shop, and I bought a new chain. Again, with foresight, I've included a chain-breaker in the tool bag, therefore it was not a problem replacing the old with the new in the city centre. There also was a section where we cycled round in circles looking for the overnight hostel before being directed to it. The scenery was as varied as it got, from beautiful views of mountains, valleys, rivers and lakes, to Medieval bridges we crossed, alongside castles from the same period. Then there were the boring stretches where the road was banked on both sides as it cut through a hill or area of high ground, or just passed through uninteresting fields.

That is a good illustration of the Christian life - good, joyous parts, dull uninteresting times of our lives, and times of sorrow and pain. But just as two wheels constantly rolled underneath us, so the Holy Spirit will see us through to the end.

And something far more worthy than Champagne awaits us at the finishing line.


  1. Dear Frank,
    Cycling sounds like a wonderful way to see the UK and keep fit at the same time. And it certainly is a wonderful analogy for the Christian life. May we run with joy and endurance the race He has set before us.
    Thanks as always for the great post, and God bless,

  2. Great post, Frank. Like you I enjoy cycling, although not at your level.

  3. Hi Frank! Thank you for visiting my blog and leaving your sweet comment! I loved your post! Believe it or not, I have become a fitness enthusiast! I have started "running"! At the age of 60 (almost 61) I have been running 5Ks, 10Ks and am going to be running in 2 half marathons shortly!

    Believe it or not, I am afraid of bicycles! I rode when I was young of course, but I tried it again when I was older (in my 20's) and was on a ten speed. I hit some gravel and the bike went head over heels!. I tried one other time on a LITTLE sting ray bike, but got chased by dogs, so I never tried again. I'll stick to having my feet planted firmly on the ground. Haha!

    Do they have bike races over in England? Have you ever thought of entering them if they do? I bet you would be great!

    Again, thanks for reading my blog. I will try to be more consistent in my writing from now on. God Bless and Keep you and Yours!


    1. Dear PJ,
      Yes, there are bike races and time trials here in the UK. However, now in my sixties, as well as some health problems, I have now restricted cycling to commuting, although my weekly run to the church is about five miles each way.
      I leave competition for the younger, fitter participants.

  4. Hi Frank,
    although my driving licence is worth it's weight in gold to me, I think bike riding is far more exhilarating as you say. Also, although I enjoy my life on this earth, regardless of hard times, there is no comparison to my life in Jesus and the prize that it offers. I think you should write a book or two on your travels.
    God bless you and Alex.