Chapter Two

Travel Tribulations

It was with some trepidation that I hugged my wife goodbye and set off from home.  To be clear, it wasn’t the hug that was causing me the anxiety, it was the cycle to the railway station.

Day 1 Loaded Bike for StartCycling through the alternating patches of light and dark created by the streetlamps as I rolled along the residential streets out of town, I reasoned with myself that there was nothing to worry about.  After all, I cycled this route, or at least the first 90% of it, three times a week, it was my commute to work.  But the unreasonable tiny travel troll perched on my shoulder whispered of punctures.

“I have bullet proof tyres,” I argued.

“Nothing will stop a nail or a large thorn,” hissed the troll, “and you won’t see them in the dark!”

Damned troll had a point, the hedges had just been cut.

Leaving the street lights behind I turned onto a cycle path running alongside the A38, peering into the pool of unnatural white light from my front LED light, trying to spot any rogue thorns.  Fortunately I was moving at a snail’s pace, not wanting to break a sweat on the ride before crawling into bed on the train.

That was another source of anxiety.  I had never slept on a train before and I wasn’t sure what to expect.

“Not sleep, that’s for sure,” giggled my tiny travel troll with gleeful malice.

To maximise my cycling time I had booked a compartment on the night sleeper train from Plymouth to London Paddington on a Friday night.  That meant I could go to work and come home to have a full evening with my family before riding the 12 miles to the railway station in time for the midnight departure.  I would get five hours of sleep on the train then, whilst the streets were still quiet, cycle across London to Liverpool Street Station.  From there I would catch the first of two trains that would whisk me to Lowestoft by 09:30.  All for £79, with minimal cycling time wasted on travel.  The only down side was that I might feel a little tired at the start due to shortened sleep.

“Bloody knackered from no sleep at all!” translated the troll.

“I never sleep very well the night before a big ride anyway,” I snarled at it.  Luckily it was dark and I was in the countryside so the only ones likely to hear me were the sheep huddled together in the corner of a field, sheltering from the penetrating headwind I was struggling against.

Despite the wind, before long I was entering the outskirts of Plymouth, back to the streetlight.  Easing back in the saddle I relaxed my shoulders, which had become tight as I hunched over the bars trying to spot thorns.  The hedge cut lanes were behind me and the threat of punctures diminished.

“Yes, but there’s still that tick,” grumbled the troll spitefully, resenting my safe passage.

That was true.  It seems inevitable that before any event my bike starts to develop ticks and squeaks, the gears suddenly don’t click through properly and the saddle gets uncomfortable.  The reality is I am just getting worried and looking for problems.  That inaudible tick becomes a hammer blow, the slight delay in shifting becomes an insufferable gear problem and the saddle is tiny so of course it is uncomfortable, it always is.

That hadn’t stopped me from panicking about a couple of ticks two days before the ride and frantically switching to my back-up bike.  This had involved swapping over the wheels, having to change over the cassettes [rear gear cogs] because they had worn to the chain, changing saddles, swapping over pedals for the ones that worked with my new shoes, changing the tyres to make sure I had the best puncture protection and moving my saddle bag mount.  When I had run through the gears I found adjustment impossible because the chain on the back up bike was worn so I also had to fit a new chain.

The next day (yesterday) I had ridden the back-up bike to work to test it and discovered that it not only ticked but squeaked as well.  It was also sluggish and the set up was all wrong.   Last night I swapped everything back.  Thankfully my number one bike now seemed fine, apart from that minor tick, the slight imperfection in gear shifts and the mild discomfort of the saddle.

I tried to put the tick out of my mind but, like Chinese water torture, it was slowly wearing me down.  I knew it was probably just something loose but the troll kept nagging that something was about to fail in a cataclysmic, ride ending manner.

There was no time to stop now so I promised myself I would dig out my multi tool and tighten everything up once I was safely at the railway station.  In the meantime I tried to isolate the source by seeing if it ticked whilst pedalling/not pedalling, in the saddle/out of the saddle, weight on the front of the bike/back of the bike but it seemed to be completely random.

On the plus side, the phaffing around was making the time fly and soon I was turning from my normal commute and heading to the railway station.  The easiest, most traffic free route was through the university campus.  Despite having worked in Plymouth since studying at the university, over half a lifetime ago, I had not been onto the campus for many years.  I hardly recognised it.  Old buildings had been refaced or demolished and new, state of the art edifices had grown in every open space.  The odd building I recognised looked incongruously old amidst the modern architecture.  Clearly there was a lot of money to be made in educating the next generation of dissatisfied professionals.

One thing hadn’t changed, there were a lot of drunk students stumbling around the place.  I avoided them, remembering what they are like, and tip-tyred out of the campus and into the neighbouring railway station, which was full of drunken women instead.  Well, two drunken women but it was still full of them: they were large characters, made infinitely more voluminous in presence and voice by alcohol.

I knew that when the train pulled in, the bike van would be at the end of the platform so I gratefully sidled away, out of range as the sotted duo staggered from person to person demanding cigarettes.  I busied myself fiddling with my nuts, hoping they wouldn’t wander over and offer to help.  I think everyone was happy when the police turned up and escorted them away, except the police maybe.

It was chilly waiting for the train to arrive.  I was kitted out in my cycling Lycra, not wanting to carry the extra bulk and weight of ‘normal’ clothes merely for this train journey.   In fact I had tried to cut the amount of kit down to a minimum.  For those interested in such things I have listed everything in the table below.

Things to Take
1.    Me
2.    Things to go on me:

Leg warmers
Arm Warmers
Cycling shoes
Cycling mitts
Chest strap for heart rate monitor
2-3 hour supply of food in pockets

3.    Bike

Monoc TR2 Team road bike (aluminium frame with carbon forks and stays equipped with 30 speed Shimano 105 groupset)

4.    Things to go on the bike:

Garmin 800 Sat Nav and back up battery

5.    Things to go in bags:

Tyre levers
Multi tool
Inner tubes x2
Zip ties
Chain lube
Plastic bags
First aid kit
Antiseptic wipes
Butt cream
Mobile phone
Various chargers
Spare shorts
Spare top
Spare socks
Wind/rain top
Waterproof Rainlegs
Tablet for Blogging
Silk rucksack

This is pretty much the same list of equipment I used on my first end-to-end from John O’Groats to Land’s End.  On my last two trips I stripped the bulk down by not taking any spare cycling clothes.  The only problems was that, once I had showered in the B&B each evening,

I had nothing to wear because I washed the kit each night by stomping around on it in the shower.  It had been useful having the extra space in the bag though because I could carry food for a short while after buying it.  That meant I could find a scenic spot to stop and eat rather than stuffing it down outside the shop where I bought it [I am not a café person, they take too long].  To counter this I added a silk rucksack.  I am no advocate of rucksacks for cycling.  They can cause back and neck problems and make you sweat (or at least do not allow your sweat to wick away) but for a short distance the silk rucksack is great.  It weighs nothing and is surprisingly comfortable to wear.  I have even used it commuting.  It is especially useful if I have to carry something only one way because on the return I can roll it up and put it in my back pocket; it squishes down to something you can fit in the palm of your hand.

The train was supposed to arrive ten minutes before its departure time, to allow sleeping passengers time to settle in their cabins before the train pulled away.  That time came and went so I carried on tightening my nuts, hoping the activity would take my mind off the chill.  It didn’t and I was thankfully when the train rolled in just a few minutes late.

The sleeping carriages were right at the front of the train and I watched them glide by and then slowly disappear out of sight down the slightly curving platform as the train inched to a stop.  The bike van was at the very back.  Glancing at the station clock I judged I had two minutes to secure my bike and run the length of the platform to my carriage before the train pulled away.  The train may not have been punctual in arriving but I knew the conductor would be keen to leave bang on time.

On my last venture onto a train with a bike, the entire bike area had been piled high with suitcases from a Saga holiday group.  By the time I had excavated a large enough hole to wedge my bike in I had been left with seconds to do the same run down the platform that I would have to perform tonight.  Mercifully the guards van was empty and it took mere seconds to chain my bike to the stand, unhitch my saddlebag and exit back onto the platform.

A trick I had learnt from my past trips was to wear cycling shoes with a recessed cleat*.  It made jogging down the platform much easier and I managed to clamber into my carriage just before the guard waved his flag and the train pulled away.

[* For none cyclists, a cleat is a piece of plastic or metal that screws to the bottom of your shoe that then clips into your pedal.  Cycling with your feet clipped to your pedals is much more efficient, allowing you to pull up on the pedals in additional to pushing down (although, ideally it is best to pedal with a circular motion – who would have guessed?). Cleats also ensure that your feet are always in the correct position, providing you have positioned the cleats properly.  Their downside is that, unless recessed, they make walking awkward and slippery.]

Bumping shoulders against the walls I stumbled down the narrow passage with my saddlebag held before me like a shield.  It had been a long time since I had been on a train with a side passage.  These days all the carriages have a central aisle.  My childhood flashed back with memories of sneaking off down the train from cattle class, with its central aisles, to first class with its side passages and separate enclosed compartments.  Peering through the glass at the posh looking people I would hope to find an empty compartment where I could sit for five minutes, pretending to be important before being chased off by the guard.

This time I had a ticket though and was muttering, “13L, 13L…” repeatedly under my breath looking for my cabin and berth.  With the train picking up speed I was keen to get into bed and asleep as soon as possible but didn’t want to blunder into the wrong cabin.  Fortunately when I found it the door was open so there was no chance of bursting in on anything unsavoury.

I had wondered about the nautical terminology of cabin and berth but it certainly suited it better than room and bed.  Not that there was anything wrong with it, provided you like all your surfaces covered in Formica.   It met all my expectations anyway.  They weren’t very high.  It was just somewhere to try and get a little sleep whilst being whizzed towards my destination.  Or rather, my start line.  I am glad that I paid a little extra to use the cabin as a single though. It would have been very cramped with a second body and the ‘upper’ berth dropped from the wall for action.

Day 1 Cabin on Train
Day 1 Cabin on Train

Stowing my bag under the bed I stripped off, hung my kit on a hanger and clambered into bed.  Switching the light off I closed my eyes, determined to prove my tiny travel troll wrong and get a decent night’s sleep.

The train passes through the town I had set off from an hour and a half before and I was just wondering if I had made any net gain on my journey when there was a knock at the door.  It was a bit surprising, I wasn’t expecting visitors.  It was also a little awkward being half asleep and naked.  I mumbled something, fumbled in the dark for my cycling kit and dragged it back on.  Flicking the light switch I opened the door a crack and squinted out. “Yes?” I queried, wondering if I was going to end up in an argument over a double booking.

“Mr Wood?”

“Yes.”  Well, another passenger wouldn’t know my name so it couldn’t be someone muscling in on my berth.  I pulled the door open wider.

“You didn’t check in,” stated a slight, middle aged lady wearing a Great Western uniform and holding a clipboard and pen.  Unbidden, she took a step into the cabin, both stabilising herself and taking control of the door by pinning it to the wall with her leg.

Her tone was only slightly accusatory but it left me stammering silently in my head in confusion as I sat back on the bed, ‘Check in?  It’s not a bloody hotel.  There were no instructions to check in!’

“I was in carriage E,” the lady continued, ticking something off on her clip board.

‘Well I was in carriage F trying to get to sleep and I don’t much appreciate being interrupted thank you very much.  Don’t you know I have a long way to cycle tomorrow?’ I thought.  Being typically English I said, “Sorry.”

“Well, I’ve found you now.  What time would you like to be woken?”

‘I couldn’t have been hard to track down, I was in my cabin!  And, for your information, I didn’t want to be woken at all,’ went through my head.  “Sorry?” came out of my mouth.

The lady gave me a look that might generously have been called patient but was actually closer to, ‘Why do I seem to have to explain this to every dumb passenger that infests my working place?  Just smile and think of the pay cheque.’  “The train arrives at Paddington at 05:13 but you do not have to vacate until 7:00.  What time would you like to be woken?”

“I don’t need to be woken thanks.  I’ve set my watch to wake me,” I said, wishing I was in control of the door so I could gently and politely close it in her officious face.

“Yes, I am sure you have.  But we need to make sure the train is vacated by 7:00.”

In other words, passengers are not to be trusted and should be poked awake and herded off the train as soon as possible.  “How about 6:30 then?” I ask, knowing that I will be long gone before they have a chance to poke at me.

“And what would you like for breakfast?”

“Nothing, thank you.”  I knew what the prices would be like on the train.  I would try and pick something up as I cycled from Paddington to Liverpool Street.

“It is all part of the service.”

“Oh!  What are the options?”

She started listing things but I stopped her at bacon butty.

“Tea or coffee?”

“Coffee please,” I said, offering the lovely lady a smile.

“Thank you Mr Wood.  Bacon Butty and coffee at 06:30.”

“Yes, thank you.”

With a radiant smile she retreated from door and as it clicked closed I felt quite happy.  I was going to get more of a lie in than I had thought and would be woken with a bacon butty and coffee.  I had the zip to my cycling top undone before I realised that I actually did need to be long gone from the train long before 06:30.

Ripping the door back open I manage to accost the lady at the corner of the carriage and amend my wake up time to 5:30.  I knew it was going to be much more time than I would probably need. My onward train to Norwich [and then change for Lowestoft] was not until 07:00 and it was only a 4-5 mile cycle but I know London like the back of my hand; not very well at all.  I wanted to leave myself enough time to get lost.  Or rather enough time to allow myself to become unlost if I got lost.  And hopefully the roads would be fairly abandoned that early.

Finally, climbing back into bed (berth?) I turned the light out and attempted to drift off to sleep but it wasn’t long before the train was slowing on the approach to Newton Abbot.  I struggled to relax whilst passengers thumped up and down the passage, expecting another knock on the door at any moment.  But eventually the noise quietened down again and the train pulled away.

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