In early 2000 I saw a poster in Dudley Library: Cycle 500km through China in Aid of MENCAP. I didn’t really think about it. I just applied. I had to raise £3000 for the charity. I spent the next 12 months begging and badgering, dressing up as Princess Leia and a fairy and shaking charity boxes at everyone.
I won a competion in MBR magazine to get some personal training but I didn’t do half of what was advised! You can wing everything when you are younger!
Below is the Article I wrote for my old High School magazine after they kindly sponsored me.
Getting to China
I arrived at Heathrow airport. Little insecurities occupied my mind. Surely, I have forgotten some fundamental piece of travelling equipment? Had I packed enough of the right clothes? Had I got enough money in the right currencies? As the Yuan is not available outside China all my cash was in Stirling and US Dollars. What if I couldn’t get it changed? Had I left the iron on? Will someone feed the cats? Who can I call when it all goes terribly wrong?
Focussing back onto the Turkish Airlines Check in desk I spotted someone wearing a MENCAP T-shirt, holding a clipboard. I headed over and introduced myself to Gemma, the MENCAP event co-ordinator. I was given an envelope that contained my plane ticket, a small name badge and a travel itinerary. Others had also spotted Gemma in the MENCAP t-shirt and I was engulfed by 100 strangers with whom I would spend the next 10 days.
Fear Number one dissolved immediately. No one looked like and elite Olympic cyclist. I’d had visions of folks looking me up and down and telling me: ‘you aren’t going to make it love!’. As young as 18 and as old as 60, we were a bunch of regular folks, all shapes and sizes. There were Directors of large national companies, housewives, policemen and students from every corner of the UK. Fear Number Two? I wasn’t the only one doing this alone. Everyone was alone. None of us knew each other yet. We already had the shared experience of 12 months fundraising and preparing. It was great to be able to finally discuss my fears, excitement, training and packing with other people.
Sixteen hours later I stepped off the plane into the pristine, air-conditioned airport in Beijing. After collecting our luggage, we regrouped and were herded out of the airport. The heat was the first thing to hit me. It was 34 oC and would turn out to be the coolest day of the trip! The second thing I noticed: the billboards outside the airport; advertising an array of technical gadgets, services, telephones, all of them advertised by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnie in a suit, Arnie, flexing his muscles, He was everywhere!
The first night’s hotel was in Xiling on the outskirts of North Beijing. Hotels that foreigners can stay in are all Government run. They are palatial compared to the surroundings, the staff are friendly and English Speaking and portray nothing of the Real China. The bright white, blocky hotel in Xiling with it’s manicured forecourt was in stark contrast to the 1950s/60s apartment block next door.
Overcrowded and run down these 5×5 blocks dominate the outskirts of Beijing. The Communist Party destroyed much of the old Beijing to create these living spaces which have become a testament to the poverty of it’s people. So different from the New, Sparkling, High-Rise, international face of Beijing World Player.
Each hotel we would stay in had a uniformed guard at its entrance who would salute every time you entered or exited the premises. Each hotel also had an entertainment centre, 10-pin bowling, swimming pool and a karaoke! All the things us foreigners love!!! A mural on the wall of our Hotel beckoned us to the ‘Kiling Entertainment Centre’ as the X looked suspiciously like a K.
After finding my room-mate and room, I headed off to the bike fitting. The bikes were sturdy 21-gear, Trek mountain bikes with 26” wheels. They were also Blue! The bikes were hefty but once I had fitted my own saddle and pedals it felt like my own. The bikes were fitted with 2.1 knobbly, road-hugging tyres much to the dismay of the roadies. With each of us fitted to our bikes we settled down with a cold beer to contemplate the ride ahead.
It was my first evening in China and my last when nothing would hurt!
Setting off on the Bicycle Ride
Monday morning, 5:30am. I sat at breakfast in my cycling gear staring at a loaf of bread, a plate full of cold fried eggs, some food items none of us could identify, spam and a good approximation of some sort of Jam. Breakfast was always interesting. It was either a full-blown Chinese meal or a guess at a western style breakfast.
Cycling helmets on and one hundred and one people clad in bright-white ‘China Bike Ride’ T-shirts set of, saluted by the guard on the front gate. We moved slowly as a group through Xiling and spread out into smaller groups once the road became less congested. There was a ‘very-fast’ group, always leading, the ‘quite-fast’ group never far behind and the ‘slow’ and ‘very-slow’ groups. I always seemed to be in the last two towards the back of the pack. There was so much to look at and take in. A vehicle marked the front of the group and a bus with our luggage followed at the rear. Technical and medical support moved up and down the group making it impossible to get lost, stuck or run out of water.
I had been on regular 20-30-mile training rides but by mid-afternoon I had cycled further in one go than I ever had in my life! One thing none of us could prepare for in the UK was the heat. It doubled the effort involved. I was constantly drinking warm water and eating warm, mushy bananas.
We had been given a photocopy of a pencil map of our route and I found it difficult to have such a limited picture of where I was and where I was going. Our route took us West of Beijing and the area was quite mountainous. There were a few 6-8km climbs a day which were murderous in the heat. It would have been easy to stop and use the air-conditioned bus to the top of the climbs. I knew if I gave up once it would always be an option, so I pushed on.
The great thing about cycling up a mountain is, you eventually have to come down the other side.
The downhills were exhilarating, negotiating potholes that could swallow a car, hairpin bends, reaching speeds of 60km/hr. Well worth all the hard work.
The Great Wall of China
Day one we cycled 20km to the first pit-stop, the Great Wall of China at Mutianyu. Later in the week the route would take us via the wall at Badaling. Both Mutianyu and Badaling are tourist hot-spots. To get near the wall it was necessary to fight through a barrage of stalls. You were rushed from all directions. Vendors shoving all manner of souvenirs at you.
Standing on the clean, well-renovated sections of the wall, any historical perspective is somewhat lost. As you stroll along the wall in the sunshine, taking in the spectacular views it is hard to appreciate it’s original purpose and the effort and time taken to build the 7m high, 7m thick defence. If you let your eyes wander along the wall as it snakes along you can see where the renovations end. The wall crumbling and overgrown is a much more ominous sight and gives a better sense of the wall’s history and reality.
Out into the countryside…..
Cycling off the beaten track, through the small towns and villages, we were able to see what life is like in rural China. People lived in abject poverty, without electricity or running water. Despite this they were the happiest, most welcoming people. A small group of us cycled past a shack on the edge of a field. The family sat outside eating and enthusiastically invited us to share what little they had. Children would rush to line the roads as we approached to high-five us.
Day four we cycled through a heavily industrialised area. The air was like treacle, making it difficult to breath and sweat properly. A petroleum research facility had engulfed the little town. A maze of pipelines criss-crossed the streets, swallowing the houses and stretching up into the surrounding hills.
Crops planted between pipes were being sprayed from what looked like a leak in one of the pipes. Was it a leak or was this the research? Everything was covered in a film of grime and dust, including us. The air quality was shocking. I cut the sleeve from my t-shirt and wet it, as a makeshift facemask. As night fell the moon appeared as a pale orange disc through the haze.
Day five was the longest day and the last. We cycled 114km through the spectacular Shidu Gorge and onto Beijing. Shidu Gorge is a popular day trip destination for folks from Beijing. Ten Bridges (Shi is Chinese for ten) carry you across the Juma River as it zig-zags between the precipitous gorge walls. Paddy fields covered the floor of the gorge. Everything was harvested by hand then spread out onto the tarmac road for the tourist vehicles to do the threshing. The farmers would then follow along sweeping little piles.
As we approached Beijing the route was dead flat. The roads were tree lined, straight and would have been a pleasant ride if it wasn’t for the headwind. It was like cycling into a hairdryer on full blast. I found this soul destroying. The biggest inspiration to me at times like this were my fellow cyclists. The group camaraderie was emotionally overwhelming. We supported each other so much.
There were moments when I thought I simply couldn’t push the pedals around anymore. Before I knew it, someone would be riding next to me, encouraging me, even towing me at one point!
Rush hour in Beijing
We regrouped on the outskirts of Beijing to cycle the last 23km through the city. It was Rush hour and we needed to stay together. 4 lanes of traffic, 2 for motorised vehicles and 2 for Bicycles! So many Bicycles! So many people! Cycling in this maelstrom was frightening and exciting in equal parts and called for some very aggressive, confident cycling. Cycling through Beijing was further complicated by the extensive re-building and roadworks in progress to help the city bid to the 2008 Olympics. There were no diversions around road works, nor any safety barriers!
It took a good few hours to cycle through the chaos of Beijing. My little fingers had gone completely numb from the handlebars, rendering my hands useless. My left knee was swollen making walking difficult. I was also extremely saddle sore at this point. And the pain of sitting on the saddle was almost unbearable.
Training and preparation for a long ride isn’t just about getting miles under your tyres, it is equally about spending lengths of time on the bike to get your contact points toughened up and comfortable. Lesson learnt!
The Finish Line
Rounding a corner, Tian’anmen Square stretched out before us. Out hotel was a further 3km but the square at the heart of Beijing symbolised the end of the ride. We were all overcome with a sense of achievement and euphoria.
I had done it 482km in 5 days. I crossed the finish line at the Beijing Rainbow Hotel and was presented with a medal and a glass of champagne. It was very emotional. Lots of hugging and congratulating and a big group photograph with all my new friends.