The following blog reminds us that the only mountains one needs to really overcome are the ones we make in our mind. After all, with a little practice and determination, the Alps were just another path in the hilly cycling of Brighton based Hannah Bywaters
I love cycling. I love the hours of movement, the speed of travel slow enough to see and hear places but fast enough that it keeps changing and there is always something new. I love the exhaustion it brings and the strength it requires and the feeling of pushing myself physically. I had enjoyed a few cycle tours by myself, with my ex, and the odd other friend but I signed up to Milan to Barcelona to enable a longer trip and to stop avoiding hills.
Before this I’d planned routes to avoid incline wherever possible, sticking to river valleys or flatter areas, but I live in Brighton which isn’t flat and it felt limiting not to be able to explore hilly areas. So hey, why not tackle some mountains.
Turning up there was the worry about those mountains, plus a whole bunch of other concerns about being stuck with muppets for a long time, about how to cycle with others with different paces, how to cope with having to do stuff like cooking at the end of a long day when knackered; frankly how to be nice to strangers when exhausted.
So I start off a bit stressed and don’t sleep well before leaving (or on the first night) but off we go.
It would be fair to say I hadn’t given much thought to the side of the trip involving staying at different communities, but wow, what an insight. It was such a treat to get to see all these alternative ways of living, seeing the creativity and energy behind different setups, getting my eyes opened to what is possible and what makes so much more sense in terms of living arrangements. It made the journey fascinating to me, each new community another window into a world I knew so little about before, adding more inspiration to the possibilities I could start dreaming about for my own life.
As to all the worries I started off with, they soon began to fade pretty quickly. The lovely bunch of cyclists signed up to this adventure are wonderful people (that becomes obvious early on). Sure, it’s annoying to have to wait for everyone to stop faffing in the morning before we can head off, but what a joy to share the highs and lows of each day where you never know what the road will bring, as Frankie put it so well. Some days I struggled to fit in with the pace of others, some days it was just a joy to cycle near others pushing myself a bit harder or relaxing a bit more than I might have.
The mountains are tough. After just a few days we hit the Alps, and the climb goes on and on all day. I’m as bad at climbing hills as I thought. I start imagining heart attacks and injuries and wondering what on earth I was thinking. The views are stunning but I don’t really have it in me to enjoy them — everything is about carrying on up the road. A road that never seems to end. Then the climbing is done, and it’s not even very late, and there’s a five minute downhill ride of pure bliss and the campsite is there. No heart attack, my body is fine that day, and the next, and it turns out I can cycle up mountains. I start to feel more and more like a cycling machine, love churning out the kms each day without trouble, love the views of mountains now behind us, and love the sense of achievement.
The teammates add more to the joys as we get to know each other. James brings out his neon playsuit which couldn’t have been a better cycling outfit and has me smiling nonstop. Tom introduces me to the joys of a peloton, both as a little team of three and then adding ourselves on the back of a passing bunch of keen semi professionals who made cycling a breeze for a few miles. The snack stops get better and better, Italian gelato, French boulangeries and Spanish patisseries.
Of course I’m knackered after cycling 100+km each day, but somehow it’s not exhausting like I worried about. It’s energising and leaves me feeling full of life. I haven’t laughed this much in years, possibly I’m a bit delirious and hysterical from exercising so much, but I think its more than that, the joys of being around lovely people 24/7, not being alone in this world except in the good way of being on your bike with time to mull over the beauties.
Then as I’m getting a bit cocky thinking I’ve got this, we get a day of rain, tons of headwind, plenty of climbing and its tough. Yet even then its beautiful. There’s help when you need it with the van stopping by so we can grab warmer clothes, and then the treat of an airbnb booked that night with proper beds and a washing machine and baked Camembert.
By the time we hit the Pyrenees I can even say I enjoy climbing mountains. I love the feeling of my lungs working their hardest, I love the views of snow capped peaks, I love the smiles of us all at the top of climbs. The communities we visit seem to get better and better and I am learning so much about myself, my selfish leanings, what brings me joy, what I find most challenging, what a privilege it is to be able to travel like this, what inventive options there are for living more lightly on this earth.
We make it to Barcelona, we get drunk in no time celebrating our amazing achievement. We gradually lose people to flights home over the weekend, and the realisation of how much I miss these people I have grown to love kicks in.
Back home I am continuing the rethink on my isolated life. It just doesn’t make sense buying my food at the supermarket to cook for myself each day, coming home from work and hiding quietly by myself, owning what I need rather than sharing key resources with others. Community living saves money and time, freeing people up to pursue what matters to them because they can call on help for bigger tasks and share the daily life stuff. Yet all the communities we saw had it tough, either now or in the past when they were getting started. It's no easy choice and seems to require a huge amount of energy and vision. So many more conversations and thoughts ahead as to how I can let this journey bring about a lasting change for me.
Looking to come on a similar adventure? Check out our Bilbao to Barcelona ride through the Pyrenees or Homage to Catalonia.