Vesuvius VA – Boston MA

The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice.”

Mark Twain

I don’t remember being that keen on history when I was at school. Perhaps I was put off by being made to learn date charts by Mr Simons at junior school. I suppose dusty text books aren’t the best way to captivate a distracted schoolboy.  One thing this journey has taught me is that there’s no substitute for standing on the soil where great events took place to fire up your imagination and your curiosity. Over the course of the TransAm we’ve traced the routes of the Nez Perce Tribe, of the Lewis and Clark expedition and of the early settlers as they moved west. Riding those same trails and reading about their stories along the way has allowed me to fill in some large gaps in my knowledge of American history.

Closing in on the final leg of the TransAm also brings us into the territory where the first chapters of this country’s short history were played out as we ride though the battlefields of the American Civil War and the War of Independence. It’s also a trip back in time for Kirsty who lived in Virginia from 1982 – 1986 while her father was seconded to work at the MOD in Washington. This is the first time she’s stepped foot in this state for 30 years!

Virginia is the state for lovers

21st October 2016 – 1st November 2016

The TransAm Trail is now old enough to have its own history and one key player in that story is June Curry. Her house sits at the top of a long hill in Afton. During the inaugural Bikecentenial ride in 1976, June and her father encountered many tired and hungry cyclists hauling themselves up past her front door and needing sustenance. She decided to help them out by offering them home-baked cookies which earned her the nickname “The Cookie Lady”. As the years moved on and the route became more and more popular, she set aside an entire house that she owned nearby as a residence for weary cyclists. It has now become something of a museum having been filled with memorabilia and messages from the estimated 14,000+ cyclists that have visited. 

Inside ‘The Cookie Lady’s House’

Water from both ends of the TransAm route

Our contribution to the collection

Sadly June passed away in 2012, but her legacy lives on through the facilities offered by the house and also by the June Curry Trail Angel Award. Presented each year by the Adventure Cycling Association, this is given to people who have gone above and beyond to look after TransAm cyclists. 

Tribute to June Curry and her father

We pay our respects and leave a small memento of our own after a night in the fabled “Cookie House”. It would be easy to lose our own kit in amongst all the other items decorating each room. As we’re heading east the challenging hill that westward bounders had to tackle provides a speedy start to our day. We drop down onto a quiet road through orchards and vineyards. Huge houses peer out from the end of long drives, all of them have a grand facade with rows of classical-style columns framing the entrance. Grandest of them all is Monticello, the former home of third president of the USA Thomas Jefferson, where we are shown a video about some of the good things he did with a slight nod towards the not so good things too.

Monticello

We had thought that we’d left Jim somewhere behind us but he makes a late night appearance at the church we end up staying at in Palmyra. He tells us about his epic 150km day of getting lost but still managing to ride all the way from Vesuvius to make it here in one day. It turns out Jim isn’t shy of a challenge so we won’t be surprised if he now beats us to the finish line. 

It feels a bit disorientating to be riding through more and more densely populated areas after so long in some of the more remote regions of this country. Towns are bigger and busier and the roads are filling up with impatient drivers. Grinning, orange pumpkins are perched on almost every doorstep and those who don’t have one yet queue up to pick their own at enterprising farms. 

A night at Mineral Fire Station

Riding through the Richmond battlefield area the road is flanked by cannons hinting at the carnage that took place here 150 years ago. With confederate flags flapping over the scene we can almost hear the cries of “The Yankees are coming!”.

Richmond Battlefield

Malvern Hill

After a night in Glendale Methodist Church eating pie and chatting to Jim (we caught him up again) we venture out for a momentous day on the road. This would be our final leg of the TransAm. The Capital Trail leads us through more battlefields on a purpose built route just for cyclists and walkers. It takes us past colonial houses and plantations and on to Jamestown then Williamsburg. We’re reaching further back into history now visiting the sites of the earliest English settlements and also the battlefields of the War of Independence. These historical towns have been recreated as living history theme parks to give visitors a rather sanitised experience of life back in the 1600s for the early settlers. 

Quote posted in the window of Willis Methodist Church

On to the Capital Trail

While posing for a photo with a chap in a tricorne hat we’re approached by Greg. On discovering that we’re English he asks if we know someone called Sarah Outen. We know her by reputation and in fact we’d just bought tickets to hear her speak next February. Sarah managed to circumnavigate the world purely by human power, using rowing boats and kayaks for the wet bits and a bike when on land. It was a monumental adventure and puts our own efforts into a gentle perspective. It turns out that Greg hosted Sarah when she was riding across the States so we promise to pass on his best wishes when we meet her [she was really pleased to hear of our happy encounter and we can recommend her book if you need some inspiring reading material].

Williamsburg resident

There’s now just 20km of the TransAm left to ride, and with a helpful tail breeze we make rapid progress towards the finish line. The York River sits on our left and is broadening out as it makes its approach to the Atlantic Ocean. We get our heads down and work at pushing the pedals round. We speed through the outskirts of Yorktown with its white, wooden houses and tree-lined avenues. The salty smell of the sea is in the air. I reach for the gears as our route turns onto the inevitable final climb of the TransAm. This is the culmination of 78 days on the road, with 6804km passing beneath our wheels since leaving the Pacific Ocean at Astoria. We’ve crossed 10 different States each with jaw-dropping landscape, challenging us with high passes, windy plains and incredible national parks. But most memorable of all are the dozens of communities filled with some of the kindest and most generous people the world has to offer. These beautiful characters have made our coast to coast ride a truly humbling experience with unexpected surprises every step of the way. 

We try to take in each moment as we roll up to the Yorktown Monument, the official finish line of the TransAmerica Trail. The bike gets parked and we enjoy a big hug. This is the end of another eventful chapter in the story of our own life history.

Yorktown Monument

A well earned rest

Shortly afterwards, Jim arrives and enjoys his own finish line celebration, then we all head down to find a cold beer by the seafront. This is our first view of the Atlantic for over 2 years and it feels great to take a dip in the chilly water. The Grace Episcopal Church provides our accomodation for the night in a house overlooking the bay. Ironically Yorktown is significant in US history that it saw the defeat of the British towards the end of the War of Independence. We get our own back by enjoying a piece of British tradition with fish and chips for dinner.

Back in the Atlantic!

Sunrise Over the York River Estuary

This may be the end of the TransAm but it’s not the end of the road for us just yet. Jim joins us for the first day of our ride north up to Washington where we’ll be meeting an old friend. It’s strange not to be following the Route 76 cycle route signs and we now appear to be more of a curiosity as we ride through towns that aren’t used to seeing touring cyclists. An uneventful day is brightened considerably when we arrive in Tappahanook. While weighing up our camping options we meet Mimi who invites us to her coffee shop Java Jacks. The coffee is excellent, as are the local oysters and while we sip and scoff she calls the local fire station to ask if we can camp there. She explains that she takes any opportunity to help strangers after the local priest donated a kidney to her husband, saving his life.

Kirsty with Mimi and Jim

Before she can finish the call Officer Dave steps in having seen our bikes parked outside. He immediately takes control of the situation and escorts us to the fire station where he sets us up in their brand new bunk room, issues us a mountain of ration packs and drags poor fireman Lee over to sleep in the building with us to make sure we stay safe. It seems Dave can’t do enough to help us, but when the conversation moves to guns and politics we feel less comfortable. He’s amazed when we tell him British police officers don’t carry guns “I would never work there!” he tells us with his hand casually resting on the handle of his pistol. After a speech extolling the virtues of Donald Trump he leaves us to it as we look at each other in bewilderment. 

Officer Dave

A new recruit at Tappahannock Fire Dept.

The road continues north through Gloucester and Dumfries. Officer Dave’s self heating rations keep us well fed although there’s no way we could carry the entire box that he was trying to give us. We stop briefly at Mount Vernon to see George Washington’s house, but Kirsty is more interested in a house a short distance further on. The suburb is Alexandria is full of familiar sights for her. “I used to swim there!”, “There’s my old school!”, “A friend used to live there!”. 

figuring out the self-heating ration packs

We stop at the end of a driveway in front of a smart detached house on Whittington Boulevard. Two rocking chairs sit on the veranda with a well kept garden surrounded it. “This is my old house!”. Sadly the current occupants aren’t home so we don’t get to look inside, but standing on the porch brings back lots of memories for Kirsty. She snaps away with the camera to show her mum and sister.

Kirsty’s Old House

Kirsty on the porch in 2016

Kirsty on the porch in 1983

The last stretch into Washington DC is increasingly busy. Capitals are always such a contrast compared to most of the rest of the country and DC is no different. We follow the Potomac River on a cycle path into the heart of the city. The needle-like Washington Monument juts out of the ground in front of us and we swing round onto Pennsylvania Avenue to take a look at one of the most famous addresses in the world. Armed police are everywhere and don’t look too pleased to see our huge bike with overloaded bags approaching the gates of the White House. We pause briefly for a photo and then keep on moving before any of them get too anxious. 

Washington Monument

They don’t like tandems outside the White House

When we last saw Chris it was on a sunny afternoon in Dushanbe, Tajikistan the previous summer. He was wearing a sun-bleached t-shirt and shorts and pushing his travel-weary bike out into the city to continue his ride to Europe. The man who walks into the coffee shop on that dreary afternoon in Washington looks completely different. A smart suit and shiny shoes compliment his tidy haircut and clean shaven chin. It’s always odd to meet people in a completely different context, but as soon as his grin spreads across his face we recognise him as the fellow cycle tourist we’d shared a few days with the year before.  

Chris has swapped pedal power for horse power

Chris takes us back to his home nestled in the woods in Bethesda where his landlord Ralph and fellow lodger Mike meet us. This will be the first time we’ve had more than a single day off the bike for over three months, and Chris and Mike make sure we get the best out of our visit to the capital. In amongst the museum visits we’re invited to join in a demonstration at the Trump hotel, sing karaoke with some of Chris’s Korean friends and I meet up for a run with the White House Hash House Harriers. One of the highlights is a behind the scenes visit to Washington Cathedral that culminates in a very rare performance of Toccata by the organist. “I don’t normally play this but it’s a special treat because it’s halloween” he tells us.

Touching a piece of the moon in The Smithsonian Museum (again)

Capitol Building

Inside the Capitol Building

Lincoln Memorial

Washington Cathedral

View from the roof of the cathedral

The mighty pipe organ

Our faithful guide: Mike

Running underground with the White House Hash House Harriers

By very good fortune we receive a message from another cyclist that we met in Dushanbe, Amer who happens to be visiting Washington at the same time as us, so we meet him for dinner one day. Although our time together in Tajikistan only numbered a few days we still feel a great connection through our shared experience in that extraordinary country. That seems to be how life works as a cycle tourist, interactions with other travellers are often fleeting but always leave a lasting bond. [Amer later made a video about his round the world trip that you can watch here.]

It’s all too soon before we have to leave. With a last hug we leave Chris by the roadside and wonder where and when we’ll meet again. We can see that the spark of wanderlust still shines in his eyes so it seems unlikely that he’ll be stuck here for much longer [he now lives in South Korea giving us a fine excuse to head east again one day].   

After some persuasion we convince the train guard to load our bike though he’s very unhappy about it: “That ain’t no normal bike, it’s too big brother!”. He’s not impressed by the huge tear in the back of my trousers either: “You need to get yourself some new pants!”. Eight hours later we’re sleepily turfed out onto the platform in Boston. 

Hello Boston

How to summarise our time in the States? I’ve already written something in this blog post and looking back at it from 2020 all of the sentiment holds true. It’s a country that has changed direction in the meantime, but I’m certain that at ground level it remains much the same, making it one of the finest places for anyone to spend time riding a bicycle. 

All wrapped up and ready for departure

Boston feels hectic, frigid yet familiar given it’s our second visit, but we’re not stopping for long. There’s enough time to buy some new trousers before heading to the airport for our flight back to European soil. Ultimately we’re aiming for Lisbon, but we’re being dropped off on the Azores for a few days of recuperation first. As the wheels of the plane leave the runway Kirsty looks down at her watch and realises we had exactly 1 hour left on our three month visas. I think we can safely say we got good value out of them.

Wise words from Will




Marion KY – Vesuvius VA

“How good one feels when one is full — how satisfied with ourselves and with the world! People have tried to tell me that a clear conscience leaves you very happy and contented but a full stomach does the business quite as well and is cheaper and more easily obtained.”

Jerome K. Jerome – Three Men in a Boat (1889)

I have a well travelled friend who is a self-confessed Kentucky Fried Chicken addict. Wherever in the world he visits he will seek out the ubiquitous grinning image of the bogus colonel and dine out on a bargain bucket. Even in Reykjavik where his favourite delicacy was reassuringly expensive he still insisted on walking past the local seafood restaurants to tuck into something that he could have bought just 1.5 miles from his own house. I have to admire his dedication but for me one of the great pleasures of travelling is trying all the weird and wonderful local food that I might not have experienced before. Why have generic fast food when you could be tucking into a battered tarantula or some boiled offal

There’s only one part of the world where Kentucky Fried Chicken might be acceptable and we had just started riding through it. 

7th October 2016 – 20th October 2016

We leave Charlie at the Marion Methodist Reform Church for what will probably be our last goodbye as he now veers north towards Pennsylvania. We’re asked to take a polaroid photo for the guestbook which is a great idea as we can put a few of the faces against names we’ve been reading in guestbooks up to this point. The church has been hosting cyclists from when the very first riders took on the TransAmerica Trail so their records go back 40 years.

Kentucky Plate

Roadside Flora

One of the main industries on this side of Kentucky is tobacco and there’s an unmistakable smell when we pass big wooden barns with hundreds of leaves hanging up to dry inside. The barns are decorated with colourful geometric patterns that they call barn quilts. Each one is unique, like a signature for that particular farm. 

Drying Tobacco

Barn Quilt

Barn Quilt 2

Barn Quilt 3

Neat little baptist churches appear by the roadside with surprising frequency making us wonder how there can be enough of a congregation to fill them all? As we’ve seen all along the TransAm, these tiny communities are all keen to encourage cyclists to stop and support their towns, so a lot of the churches have opened their doors for travellers to spend the night. However Sebree First Baptist Church has taken their hospitality to a whole new level. 

Sebree First Baptist Church

When we arrive at their Cyclists’ Hostel we’re met by Tony who gives us the guided tour. “Here’s the games room, there’s a laundry over there, you can use the kitchen and this is a room full of spare parts if you need to fix your bike”. It’s an amazing facility that has been set up specifically for touring cyclists.  When we ask if we can make a donation Tony holds up his hands and says “There’s no need, we are doing this as a service to the people and to serve God”. 

Sebree Cyclist Hostel with Chris and Amina

When I walk into the Sebree post office the lady behind the counter asks “Are you Marcus? We have something for you!”. With impeccable timing our repaired front wheel arrived that morning now sporting a brand new hub thanks to a generous warranty from Son and the speedy services of Peter White Cycles. The trusty stand-in wheel we had been using for the last week gets added to the spare parts cupboard back in the hostel and we roll away with dynamo power restored. 

Following Route 76

The brutal hills of the Ozarks are now far behind us, but Kentucky still has its fair share of climbing as we find ourselves in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains. It’s very much an agricultural landscape, with enormous tracked machinery working the vast fields. We stop at dusty ‘Old Time’ stores where we have to ask the friendly proprietors to repeat themselves several times until we can understand them. The Kentucky accent is a strong one.

Kentucky Style

There’s been an increase in the number of Confederate flags fluttering from garden flagpoles with Vote Trump signs perched alongside. For breakfast we can now get the staple of biscuits and gravy, a type of savoury scone with white sauce. While staying at one church we read an article about the appearance of a burning cross outside a black family’s home. This is very much a ‘southern’ state. 

IVIS Church

Biscuits and Gravy for Breakfast

Hauling up one hill we’re glad to find a reason for a rest at the top. The little cupcake stall draws us in like a siren. Mary has only been open a week and has a huge variety of coloured cakes on offer. We’re invited to try one. She tells us that she found baking was a great distraction and helped give her focus after a nasty accident. She’s now taken the bold step of venturing out with this new business. We tell her it’s a great spot as she should find a steady trade from passing hungry cyclists like us. We buy another couple and continue on.

Mary’s Cupcake Shop

Through Madrid then on to Ohio county where we change time zones and lose an hour. We see distinctive horse drawn carriages and bushy beards in Amish communities like a step back in time. In amongst the Baptist churches a huge Catholic monastery looks incongruous, even more so with the whisky distillery just down the road. 

An Amish Couple

Makers Mark Distillery

Then we arrive in Springfield, which could be the home of the Simpsons if it weren’t for the fact that 31 other states also have a Springfield. By now we have a routine and head straight for the Baptist church, this one a huge and grand building in the middle of town. Inside Jamie and Tommy greet us enthusiastically and are keen to help when we ask if we can spend the night there. Their first idea is to let us use a nearby safehouse but rule that out as it is full of rehabilitating drug addicts. Not so safe for us. Instead they decide to book us into a hotel and pick up the tab. This is far more than we expected and we feel embarrassed that they’ve even suggested it, but they won’t accept our refusal. Before leaving us they offer some prayers for our safe onward journey and present a small pocket bible. “Jesus sent you to us and in that book you’ll find true beauty, better than anything else we’ve seen” Jamie tells us. We feel forever indebted to these amazing people but restore a small portion of our karma by releasing a trapped raccoon from a bin later that evening before heading out for some fast food. Some burgers from Wendy’s are just what we needed. 

Members of The Springfield Baptist Church

Trash Panda

Raccoon Rescue

As we ride east we seem to climb into autumn. The rolling countryside is preparing itself for its most impressive annual display. Leaves are beginning to curl and move into shades of yellow and red. Our quiet roads wind through tunnels of trees alongside crystal clear creeks before taking us up and onto ridges with panoramic views of the valleys on either side. The temperature is a perfect 25 degrees but we’re losing light fast now with sunset closing in by 6pm. 

Kentucky Countryside

A Curious Groundhog

As we descend one of these ridges, the sun is already setting on our backs. We begin to eye up potential camp spots but then we spot a small inviting sign that reads “Bicycle Campers Welcome”. Rick and Donna have opened up a field for passing cyclists to use complete with al-fresco shower and a cool box full of useful supplies. I hike up to their house to say thanks and ask for water and end up with an invitation for us to stay in their horse box instead. It’s one of more unusual accommodation options but offers a very cosy night’s sleep. The neighbouring Texas longhorn cattle greet us in the morning as the sun rises over the hills. Rick tells me to watch out for the vultures that have been known to take newborn calves.

Shower with a view

Home for the night

Rick and Donna

A Nosy Neighbour

We ride into the Daniel Boone National Forest where the autumn colours have been turned up a level or two. The houses in this region are little more than permanent mobile homes and the level of poverty is very clear. Beaten up trucks with bad drivers make our roads more treacherous than we’ve been used to for a while. Old sofas litter front lawns surrounded by ever more elaborate halloween displays. 

Kentucky Trailer Park

Autumn Is On Its Way

Halloween Is On Its Way

We stop in Buckhorn to send a post card from the tiny post office but this request is met with a puzzled look by the girl behind the counter. “We don’t send many postcards from here”. She makes a phone call to find out what she should do but the person on the other end of the line isn’t sure either. We ask her to put a stamp on and hope for the best.

Local Store in Kentucky

We’ve now left the tobacco plantations of the west side of the state and are moving into the coal mining regions of the east. It seems that Kentucky’s industries are a few decades out of date. It’s no wonder that the number of roadside Trump signs has increased several times here after he promised that he’ll restart the coal industry. We stop to chat to some loggers who fell trees for $7/hour. They warn us that this area is very depressed and full of crime. “Be sure to lock up your bike!”.

Kentucky Loggers

Can you dig it?

The Appalachian mountains have now begun in earnest, so each day we find ourselves tackling several steep hills before plunging down cambered descents alongside deep gorges. We have our last chance for some fast food before leaving Kentucky so tuck into milkshakes at a Dairy Queen before we cross into our final TransAm state of Virginia.  

Pause to Admire the View

His and Hers Outhouses

The only sign of Colonel Sanders that we saw in all of Kentucky

All this time we’ve been looking out for Oli the walking Slovenian that Jeanmarie had told us about back in Kansas. We keep thinking we must have passed him by now, but then find his name in the guestbook of the next store. When we arrive at Elk Garden Methodist Church we spy a bright yellow pushchair parked up outside and inside we find Oli. With him are several other cyclists, Fred, Jackie and Nancy who are riding to the Ohio river. 

Elk Garden Methodist Church Hostel

Oli is as pleased to see us as we are to see him. “I’ve heard about you crazy Brits on a tandem!” he shouts. We quiz him about why he’s walking so fast. “I had planned to take a year to walk the TransAm but when I arrived they only gave me a visa for 6 months”. All his plans went out the window and he was suddenly on a mission and had to clock up 20-30 miles a day. His pushchair had gained a bit of attention particularly when we was doing a late stint on main roads. “People kept pulling over to ask what I thought I was doing pushing a baby on a hard shoulder at night”. He now has a big sign that says ‘No child on board’.

Oli the Walking Slovenian

We’ve got used to not having most of the things that we missed from the UK but we’ll always have a hankering for Marmite. It’s with great delight then that we find a jar in one of the cupboards in the morning to add the taste of home to our breakfast. Our housemates are less convinced. Oli sets off early with aching legs to try and get another good day’s miles in. It takes us an hour and half to catch him up as he’s faster than us up the hills but we make better progress going back down again. He sings cheerfully to himself and waves when we eventually pass him. Clearly a man enjoying what life has given him.

[After finishing the TransAm Oli became a national hero in Slovenia. He then took on an even bigger adventure walking the length of the Americas. He’s currently back in Slovenia but will pick up the trail again once it’s safe to return.]

A Curious Groundhog

Following a Creek in Virginia

The Appalachians are best known for the world’s longest ‘hiking only’ footpath: the 2200 mile Appalachian Trail. A rite of passage for any keen hiker, around 850 people walk its entire length each year. Some even turn around and walk back again. This is the third of the Triple Crown of Hiking trails that we’ve encountered after the Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail.

Crossing the AT

We cross the AT at Trout Dale and spend the night in a cabin chatting to some hikers. Like cycle tourists, long distance hikers have a particular vocabulary and enjoy chatting about their kit. One thing that differs though is that through-hikers like to give each other trail names. Caleb has been christened “Jetpack” on account of the excessive amount of fuel for his stove that he likes to carry. His adventure sounds wonderful with stories of days in remote forests, wildlife encounters and new friendships forged in the tiny huts that are provided along the route. Another journey to add to the ever increasing ‘must-do’ list.

Caleb AKA Jetpack

We drop down from the ridge and into a wide valley that marks the divide between the ‘new’ Appalachian range and the ‘old’ Appalachian range. A strong tail wind and a respite from the steep hills helps us make good progress. Up ahead we spot another cyclist who turns out to be Jim, a friend of Chris and Amina. Jim had to leave the other two as he had a shorter window of time to complete the trip. We’d keep seeing him at various roadside stops for the next few days.

A Lone Sunflower

This stretch of the TransAm has provided some of the most diverse range of places for us to stay. As well as the numerous churches, we’ve slept in small huts, been offered the floor of fire stations, camped in town parks and been invited into luxurious houses thanks to generous WarmShowers hosts. Just before the final big climb of the Appalachians we find the best place we’ve spent the night so far.

A Night at Troutville Fire Station

Mick and Lee who hosted us in Radford VA

We’d contacted Meghan though Warmshowers and although she wasn’t going to be there she had offered use of her cabin for the night. We arrive late in the day and almost miss the subtle track into the woods that leads up to her property. Pushing up through the trees we’re not sure we can be in the right place as the track becomes more and more vague. We round a corner and then there it is. Meghan and her partner have built this 160 square foot cabin themselves from salvaged materials and it forms a beautiful structure in a peaceful clearing. Mismatched windows compliment the reclaimed wood paneling. Inside we find a basic kitchen area and a stove that soon heats the tiny space up.  A heaving bookshelf includes titles about self sufficiency and low impact living. There’s no running water, mains electricity or bathroom and certainly no wi-fi

Meghan’s Cabin

It may have been the cumulative effect of the last few weeks of riding or the hearty supper we had cooked ourselves but in that tranquil little space we both sleep better than we have for a long, long time. Easing my eyes open in the morning and looking out into the woods I smile contentedly. This is a very special place and we can see why Meghan has decided she will move here permanently. It gives us lots to think about regarding how we might want to live when we eventually return home and we hope that we can borrow more than a few ideas from this place. 

Room with a View

Cooking in the Cabin

We know that today will be a challenge with the tough climb up Vesuvius to tackle that will bring us onto the final ridge of the Appalachians. We pack up and reluctantly leave the idyl of this woodland clearing. We need to get our minds ready for the challenge ahead and with bellies full of porridge we swing onto the foot of the climb. It quickly steepens into double digit gradients as I work down through the gears to find our granny ring. We grind, grunt and gasp for 5km. The fire in our lungs is matched by the intensity of colour all around us.  The road sweeps up to the sky through a towering forest that is now resplendent in all the shades of autumn. The experience is an intense assault on the senses as our legs scream for mercy while we blink sweat out of our eyes to take in more of the surrounding view. 

Climbing out of Vesuvius

View from the Blue Ridge Parkway

We eventually find ourselves on top of the world at the Blue Ridge Parkway. Below us lies the flatlands of eastern Virginia with a patchwork of forests cascading down the hillside. We’ve timed our arrival perfectly with this being the most spectacular season to be here. In the far, far distance we’re sure we can see the Atlantic Ocean. The finish line for the TransAm is somewhere over there, almost in sight. Beyond that, across the water lies Europe and home but surely it’s too soon to be thinking about that? We gently make our way along the ridge, teasing out the lactic acid in our muscles. We’ve conquered the final big hurdle of the TransAm and we’re ready for the final leg into Yorktown. But first it’s time for lunch.

The End of the Appalachians

A Curious Groundhog

If you like photos then you’ll love seeing more in our Gallery.




Newton KS – Marion KY

Newton KS – Marion KY

Being under lockdown rules has the useful effect of making you realise how valuable the freedom to travel actually is and how much we all probably take it for granted. I’m sure lots of people are already planning some big adventures for when it’s safe to get out and about again. My brother has been looking for advice on touring bikes and there’s been talk of exciting journeys on the Karakorum Highway or perhaps into the Pamirs. How much better will it feel to finally get out there after all of this?

In the meantime we’ve been very grateful for the little adventures we can safely do at the moment. An hour riding on lanes with more cyclists than cars and more pheasants than cyclists. A sunny walk across the fields watched carefully by a herd of young calves. Running through woods carpeted with bluebells. I even climbed a tree the other day. We’re incredibly fortunate to have so much space around us here in The Vale of Evesham compared to other people’s lockdown environment and we’re trying to make the most of it. 

Bluebells in the woods on Bredon Hill

As well as travelling I’ve also missed competing. Last weekend I was supposed to be running the London Marathon wearing a tap costume to raise money for the charity WaterAid. Instead I ran 45 laps around our farm on a tap-shaped course. This was harder than I’d anticipated, but it was a fun challenge to satisfy my competitive urges. The best bit though was the amount of support I received from friends and family via the wonders of an online stream on Facebook. It made it feel like a proper event even though there were actually more four-legged spectators than people. If you’d like to make a donation to WaterAid, who are needed now more than ever before to help provide clean water and decent toilets to areas of the world that need it most, then please click here: www.tiny.cc/FastestTap.

The Tap Shaped Marathon

24th September 2016 – 6th October 2016

In Britain if you refuse to go out cycling when it rains then your bike will stay indoors for most of the year. Pull on a jacket and get on with it is the best policy. The rules in Florida and California are slightly different, so when we check the weather forecast for the day and see pictures of small grey rain clouds Dan and Charlie start to look nervous. “I think I’ll take a day off today” Dan tells us. “There’s a chilli fest in town that we could check out?” suggests Charlie. We dig out our waterproofs and leave them to it.

A big rig and a large truck

America does all-you-can-eat breakfast buffets better than anywhere else in the world. By the time we’ve finished in The Bread Basket Cafe it feels like we’ve got enough fuel on board to power us for the next week. The road out of Newton gives us a panoramic view of the storm clouds rolling across the plains. We manage to avoid the first one as it rushes across a few miles in front of us leaving soaking tarmac and that unmistakable smell of summer rain.

Storm clouds over the plains

We’re not so lucky with the next one and get caught by the edge of it with a refreshing shower. The rain is heavy but warm and is fun to ride in. Wild horses graze the fields alongside the road and are just as unfazed by the weather. We pull the zips on our jackets up to our chins while the peaks of our caps act as a gutter to keep the worst of it out of our faces. While stopped at a cafe some concerned drivers ask if we’re OK to be out on the road in these conditions. “It’s only a bit of rain!” I reply. Despite our British attitude to the weather we’re still glad to find shelter in a church that James in the bike shop had told us about. During the night the rain continues to fall outside and thunder and lightning shakes the windows in the early hours.

And so it pours

It’s clearing up ahead

Wild Horses

We stand, dripping in the corner of a grocery store in Eureka the next morning. Clutching warm coffee in our cold hands, there’s already a wet floor sign by our feet. The rain has got progressively heavier, the temperature has dropped and we’re not feeling so happy about being out in it any longer. The next customer to come through the door is Robyn who immediately assesses our situation and leaps into action. “Follow me!” she cries.

A soggy cyclist

Soon we’re in warm, dry clothes eating sloppy joes and sipping on root beer floats. Robyn has a house that she lets cyclists use when it’s not being rented out and lucky for us it’s currently empty. She lets us use the shower and dry our clothes while making arrangements for somewhere for us to stay that night. 

We feel recharged and reinvigorated when we eventually leave. The rain clouds finally blow over revealing a rolling road in the Flint Hills that takes us onwards to Toronto. Robyn had told us about the tornado that had wrecked several homes in Eureka last year and we can’t help but think about the opening scenes from The Wizard of Oz. It’s an appropriate thought when we roll up to the house of Robyn’s friend Jeanmarie. To say she’s a fan of the film is an understatement, even her number plate says Oz Bcoz! It’s the end of yet another tough day that has been saved by a fortuitous meeting with some very kind and generous strangers. Jeanmarie drives us out to watch the sunset over a lake before chatting all evening about life in the Sunflower State. She has hosted dozens of TransAm cyclists but recently had a more unusual guest. Oli was from Slovenia and has been walking the route while carrying all his gear in a pushchair. “He can’t be more than a few days ahead of you now so you should catch him up soon”. We promise to say hello from her if and when we see him.

There’s no place like home

Sunset in Toronto (KS)

Super host Jeanmarie

We’re approaching the edge of Kansas now and the plains are starting to ruck up again into increasingly steep hills. Huge cobwebs hang in the trees catching the morning light and a few unlucky tortoises lie by the roadside. One of the more fortunate ones gets some assistance from Kirsty to get safely to the other side, at least she assumes that was where it wanted to be.

The Sunflower State

Tortoise Rescue

In the small village of Benedict a hand painted sign invites us to stop at the community store where we encounter another TransAm legend. Pastor Joe is an ex-serviceman full of stories about delivering furniture to John Wayne and falling off scaffolding in Germany but his specialist subject is conspiracy theories. While being plied with free ice cream we’re educated on various devious plots by Russia to otherthrow the USA using submarines hidden on each coast of the continent. We mock incredulity and try to nod and shake our heads at the appropriate places.  Armed with two DVDs that he promises will teach us more, we eventually say our goodbyes and pedal out of there at full speed!

Benedict Community Store

Pastor Joe

Pastor Joe’s Card

We hadn’t expected to see Dan and Charlie again but when we arrive in Pittsburg a couple of days later we’re surprised to see them riding down the main street towards us. We all pitch up at the town’s community campsite where they tell us that the rain wasn’t all that bad after all. We’ll have them touring in the UK one day. They’d also made use of Robyn’s house in Eureka.

Parklife

Pittsburg serves as a vital pitstop for us with our front dynamo hub needing an overhaul. It’s a specialist job so the wheel gets boxed up and sent off for repairs and we buy a cheap, used option from Tailwind Cycles to use in the meantime. We’ll catch up with the repaired wheel at a post office in a few days’ time, all being well. 

We’re Not in Kansas Anymore

Cooky’s cafe is famous on the TransAm for serving the best pies on the entire route. We find it shortly after crossing into Missouri and as soon as we step through the door the smell of fresh baking has us salivating. I press my nose to the glass of the counter to study our options but it’s no use, all the pies look incredible so we’ll have to work through the entire menu. 

Cooky’s Pies

Charlie and Dan’s Pies

Luckily Missouri takes up where Kansas left off so we can justify the calorie intake as we begin winching up and zooming down the never ending sets of humpback hills. There’s a competition amongst cyclists on this road to take a photo of as many if the roller coaster hills in one shot as possible. We manage five which won’t win any prizes. The fields around us are now grazed by cattle and the palette of greens would start to look more like an English countryside view were it not for the large red wooden barns. 

A five pointer

Missouri or the Mendips?

We continue to meet up with Dan and Charlie at the end of each day in parks, huts and sports fields across Missouri. Dan is blogging every day so has to make use of free WiFI where he can keep it updated. It’s a big commitment and contrasts with Charlie’s approach which is to keep his stories to himself for now, to be told over a drink with his friends when the time is right. 

Dan conquers another hill

Stopping for lunch

We all arrive one evening in the confusingly named Houston in the county of Texas, Missouri. It’s a town full of big people in big trucks with big tattoos and it happens to be the day of a big college american football game. It’s an important event for the town with a large crowd gathering to support the home team. Even the local fire brigade have turned up to sound their sirens whenever their boys score a touchdown. I have no idea what is going on and there seems to be a lot of standing around and not much playing. The marching band at halftime is good though. Houston lose 18 – 40.

Coffee in a diner

Come on Houston Tigers!

Our road is taking us through the Ozark hills which lack the altitude of the mighty Rockies but make up for it with severity of gradient. The Mark Twain National Forest covers most of Ozark county with tall trees now lining the road and filling the view all around us. The drivers behind us wait patiently as we inch our way up and over each crest before gathering as much momentum as possible to get us part way up the next rise. It’s always disappointing to see how quickly the heavy bike slows from 40 to 4 mph though. Each of the small shops we stop at have a guest book so we scour the names above us to look for Oli-from-Slovenia’s name. He still seems to be a few days ahead of us so must be putting in some huge mileage days on his feet.  

Cats Eye Flea Market, MO

River valley in the Ozarks

Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park

Elephant Rocks State Park

We’re feeling weary when we arrive in Farmington so we spend two nights in the local jail. It’s been converted into a cyclists’ hostel with such luxuries as sofas, a washing machine and a PC. It’s just what we need to recharge our batteries both literally and metaphorically before we ride on into our next state. 

A night in jail

The Mississippi river is another major landmark as we cross this vast country. A broad expanse of chocolate-brown water flows slowly under the bridge that takes us into Illinois. Some of this water will have made its way down from the river Missouri that we’d crossed weeks ago in Montana. Somewhere that seems impossibly far away now. An adventure for another time might be to build a Huckleberry Finn style raft and spend some time following this great watercourse.

The Mighty Mississippi

Our time in Illinois is relatively brief and features the replacement of some more bike parts and a night in the beautiful handbuilt home of Alan and Anne. All of the logs and stone used to construct the building were sourced locally over many years and you can sense their hard work and love woven into every detail. 

Chester, IL. Home of Popeye.

On our way to our next river crossing we stop at some road works. One of the workers rests on his shovel and uses us as an excuse for a bit of break and a chat. “It’s a different way of life over here.” he tells us “All of my kids had a horse, a motorcycle and a gun by the time they were 16”. Denim and dungarees are becoming the standard uniform and we encounter our first chasing dog for many months. 

Missouri Locals

A business opportunity

The River Ohio is even larger than the Mississippi at this point but the two merge just downstream and continue together down to New Orleans. We hop on a little ferry as the sun hangs low in the sky. It’s now October so the days are getting shorter but the temperature is still very pleasant. We’ve been passing an increasing number of “Happy fall y’all” and Halloween displays in peoples’ gardens. We can buy pumpkin lattes and pumpkin ale to wash down the pumpkin pies that are on sale everywhere. . 

Ferry ‘cross the Ohio

Happy Fall Y’all

Once deposited on the far bank we find ourselves in Kentucky, our 10th state. We hadn’t seen Charlie for a few days but just before the ferry crossing he’d come past at speed. He had met up with his wife Anna who is now following him in an RV. His panniers now hang empty on his bike so he still looks like a ‘proper cycle tourist’ but without the inconvenience of the weight of their contents. He and Anna meet us at the methodist church in Marion where we’re all spending the night along with some more cyclists, Chris and Amina from Spokane, WA. It’s Charlie’s birthday so we all help him celebrate with cakes and singing and a mississippi mud pie. 

Charlie’s Birthday

It’s great to share this part of the journey with other cyclists as we each experience each day in a different way. Everyone’s reasons for riding are different, but we all enjoy the little details that are unique to travelling by bike. We compare notes to see what we might have missed. Most interesting of all though is the conversation with Anna, Charlie’s wife. She is originally from Tajikistan but her family fled to all corners of the world during the civil war after independence. She’s happy to hear how much we enjoyed visiting her home country and confesses that she sometimes pines for the Soviet era days when things were more stable there. 

Chris’s Trek

We’re into the last two states of the TransAm route now with the finish in Yorktown edging ever closer. Given the time of year we don’t expect to see too many other cyclists on the route but we are curious to know what has happened to Oli the Slovenian walker that Jeanmarie had mentioned. He’s obviously making phenomenal progress but surely he can’t reach the end before us?!

Bike art by the River Ohio




Walden CO – Newton KA

It’s tempting to look back on our journey with a filtered view, imagining that it was non stop smiles and enjoyment. Flicking through the diary pages for this next section helps me remember that amongst the great times there were some low times too as the strains of over two years on the road were really taking their toll on our bodies, bike and most crucially our relationship. 

11th September 2016 – 23rd September 2016

The thick sleeping bags that Melanie had leant us were very much appreciated during another freezing cold night. We have to reluctantly hand them back though before rolling out of town. Walden is supposedly the moose capital of Colorado so we scan the plains all morning but they must be on holiday somewhere else.

Moose sighting

It’s a big day for our riding stats today as, after reaching the brow of the next hill our speedo clicks over to 40,000km for the trip so far. A bit further on we reach 40,030km, now having ridden the equivalent to the distance around the equator. We give each other a big hug and the tandem gets an affectionate pat too, all three of us have made it this far together and it’s an emotional moment.

40,030 km: Equivalent to once around the equator

An unlikely place for a yacht club (probably why it’s for sale)

All the way from the Oregon coast the landscape has been like a creased bed sheet with rows and rows of mountains and hills taking us higher and higher into the Rockies. We’re approaching the highest ridge now and the landscape around us is a lot more how I imagined the Rocky Mountains to be with swathes of dense pine forests and towering cliffs. After summiting the Willow Tree Pass we ride alongside the Willow Creek in a wide valley. This is one of the head waters that feeds into the Colorado River so this unassuming stream will eventually help carve out the mighty Grand Canyon. It’s a gentle descent that requires no brakes but offers plenty of free speed so we can just sit back and enjoy the ride.

Descending from the Willow Tree Pass

Then there’s a commotion in the trees to our left and a moose bursts out onto the road. With long, gangly legs it clumsily gallops to the other side and clambers up the bank and back into the forest. 

We finish the day at Hot Sulphur Springs. A man in a 10 gallon hat directs us to Pioneer Park where camping is allowed. I’m hoping for a good night’s sleep as I’ve been feeling grotty all afternoon but the camp site sits near to a level crossing. It’s compulsory for trains to honk their horns day and night and it’s surprising how busy that line is at 3am. It’s also surprising how loud those horns sound when they’re within 20m of your head.  

Will someone shut that train up!

There are two services that have particularly impressed us in the US: Their post offices and their libraries. Even the smallest, most remote towns are likely to have one of each, providing a vital lifeline for communication and information. In the unlikely named town of Kremlin we arrange to ‘bounce’ a parcel that had arrived in Walden after we’d left. It’ll now overtake us so we can collect it in Pueblo in a few days time instead. This is a free service that you can use as often as you like so some people bounce parcels all the way across the country until they need their contents. We hoped to be able to use one of the computers in the library but it’s shut so we join a small handful of other people making use of the free WiFi that broadcasts to the immediate vicinity. 

The valley out of Kremlin

We have been collecting an interesting list of races that “we should do one day” during the trip that has included various ultras and marathons in the Himalayas, Angkor Wat and Japanese Alps. Before setting up camp near Dillon Lake we see posters advertising the local triathlon claimed to be the highest in the world. Definitely one to add to the list.

Lake Dillon at dawn

Mountain peak at dawn

We’re now approaching the heart of the Rockies’ ski area so the towns smarten up and the log chalets increase in size accordingly. A well made cycle path allows us to climb up to Breckenridge away from the busy main road. The trees up here are already showing their autumn colours and provide a blazing tapestry of oranges, yellows and reds on the side of the mountains either side of us. 

Colours of Colorado

Breckenridge is a friendly, bustling  resort town and provides everything we need. From a new spoke, tyre and gear cable for the bike to a pair of shorts from a thrift store [still in use to this day] and plenty of food to fuel us for the last climb of the day. The winding road stretches 15km from Breckenridge to the top of the Hoosier Pass, the highest point on the Transam, standing at 3,518m. This marks our 9th and final visit to the Continental Divide so in theory it’s all downhill to the Atlantic from here…

Ski shop in Breckenridge

Hoosier Pass, the highest point on the Transam

It starts to snow so we pull on jackets and begin the speedy descent down into South Park. My frozen knees turn numb and I hunch down over the bars with Kirsty sheltering behind my back. The road eventually levels off across the high, desolate  plains. A few houses dot the horizon, standing alone high up here with their occupants choosing a life of solitude and hardship in return for the stark beauty of their surroundings. 

Dropping down off Hoosier Pass

Storm clouds and sunshine

We spend the night in Hartsell, a tiny town of just 40 residents. The official campground has been closed down after some cyclists made a nuisance of themselves, but the saloon offers a patch of ground out the back for us instead. We’re soon joined by a fellow Brit when Andy from Reading arrives. He’s been riding the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, a spectacular, 3000 mile ride from Canada to the border of Mexico along the Continental Divide, a journey prompted by voluntary redundancy from his job. This is one of the few points where the Transam and the GDMBR intersect and it’s interesting to compare our experiences. His route has largely been on very remote trails away from any civilisation. It’s also great to find someone who speaks the same language as us after so long away from the UK, so we all pile into the Hartsell Saloon for the evening. 

Hartsel Jail, Colorado

“When a town is this small we all just  have to get along”, Kat tells us from behind the bar. Everyone does seem very friendly, from the local pot dealer (Colorado legalized marijuana in 2012) to the girl who is planning on hitching up to North Dakota to join in an oil pipeline protest. We’re invited along too but have to make our apologies.

Kat in the Hartsel Saloon

In the morning a heavy mist drifts through the town off the surrounding mountains. Andy spends an hour stuffing things into the variety of bags attached to a variety of different bits of his bike before rumbling off towards the gravel roads. We clip our panniers on and zoom off down the road. We’re now crossing the base of an ancient volcanic caldera, bubbling with hot springs. Once over the opposite rim the road takes us down for several miles. The trees begin to thin out with ochre cliffs and sparse scrub replacing the verdant shades we’d enjoyed higher up as we drop into Royal Canyon. 

Andy, a Great Divide Mountain Bike Route Rider

Royal Canyon

In Florence, after being woken twice by automatic sprinklers washing our tent in the night (again) we’re woken again by stall holders setting up for their farmers’ market. Once we emerge, bleary-eyed from our tent we’re approached by Larry who introduces himself as the deputy mayor and asks if we’re enjoying our stay? Deciding not to lodge a complaint about the sprinklers we begin to chat about what we’re up to. When we mention that we rode through China he asked if we visited Xi’an which of course we did. “You must come and visit my home then!” he cries without explanation. With some curiosity we take up his invitation, pack up, pick up some fruit from one of the stalls  and head over to his address. We climb the stairs to his flat and are greeted first by his wife Beryl but peering over her shoulder are two chinese soldiers and a horse. Where most people would buy a small model for the mantlepiece, Larry and Beryl have had exact, life sized replicas from the Terracotta Army shipped over after a visit to Xi’an. It’s an impressive and bizarre sight to find in a small Colorado town.

Beryl with their replica Terracotta Warriors

Even more impressive and somewhat more chilling is the enormous prison complex that we pass a few miles outside of Florence. Known as the Alcatraz of the Rockies this ‘Supermax’ facility covers a vast area with rows of fences and concrete walls protecting the buildings in the distance. Some of the country’s most notorious inmates are housed here in solitary confinement including the Oklahoma Bomber, Uni Bomber and a certain Dzhokhar Tsarnaev the remaining brother responsible for the bombs in Boston in 2013. This is the second time we’ve been within a few hundred metres of that last character and we’re glad that this time he’s behind bars and concrete, and fences and more concrete, and barbed wire….

‘The Alcatraz of the Rockies’ Not somewhere you want to end up

The road rolls over increasingly dry scrub land, the high mountains now filling the view far behind us. We eventually drop down into Pueblo for a couple of days’ rest with Warm Showers host, Mike.  Pueblo is another milestone as it marks the halfway point of the Transam route. It’s a funky little town with plenty of street art and we enjoy a guided tour with Mike. He’s an enthusiastic character that seems to have been given a new lease of life after a recent separation. His current project is to run for state governor representing the ‘No Party Party Party’. He’d get our vote without a doubt. 

Pueblo by night

Street art in Pueblo

As well as a place to rest, refuel and reset, Pueblo is the pickup point for our parcel which has arrived safely from Walden courtesy of USPS. We have a good sort out of the panniers and manage to find 8kg of kit and souvenirs that we no longer need so box it up to be sent home. If only we’d done that before tackling all those hills.

Vote Mike for Governor!

Mike has become something of a stalwart host for Transam cyclists and tells us about another ‘superhost’ for the following night. 85km further east, we find Gillian, a relocated Kiwi who has a small holding in the small town of Ordway. Her offer of accomodation in her caravan comes at a small price as everyone who stays is assigned a task to earn their keep. Kirsty gets to walk her pack of dogs while I’m given a bundle of paracord to unravel. It seems like a fair deal.

Kirsty and Gillian

The last couple of days in Colorado shake out the final ruffles from the mountains with some very gentle hills before we hit the flatlands that form the central regions of this continent. With the reduction in altitude comes an increase in temperature with the middle of the day peaking at 35°C. We seek shade under trees when we find them at tiny settlements with a population of 9 or 10 people, 1 horse and 100,000 flies. 

Abandoned train, outside Ordway

Nearly home to Bristol ?

We cross into Kansas and with it comes a new time zone and a new challenge. The road straightens out in front of us as a never ending grey line disappearing into the horizon. The fields of wheat either side rustle in the wind and predictably bend in our direction as the strong easterly blows into our faces. 

Entering state number 7

I try various things to help the kilometers pass, mostly involving distraction techniques. I spend as long as possible focussing on the white line at the side of the road as it flashes by. I try not to look up at the grain silo that isn’t getting any closer. I try not to look down at the speedo to see the distance clicking over all too slowly. Is it even working?

A typical day in Kansas…

…what’s that up ahead?…

….another grain elevator!

The plains of Kansas are feared by Transam cyclists just as much as the mighty hills on either side. It’s a mind game as much as a physical test so if your head and your legs aren’t feeling strong then the plains will give you a very hard time. 

Big skies over Kansas

We’re sharing this stretch with Charlie, who has ridden his beautiful, white, steel bike from Sacramento, California and is on his way to Buffalo, New York. He shows up to camp at the same water towers as us each evening then spends the day travelling at his own speed. The towns in Kansas don’t mind us using their parks but in some we have to register our presence with the police. In one we forget to do this and get a visit from a patrolling officer who is just happy to have an excuse to stop for a chat. It’s a welcome break from chasing kids who are breaking curfew. Here under 15s have to be home after 10pm while 15-18s can stay out until midnight.

Camping at Leoti, Kansas with vultures roosting on the water tower

We can see the grain elevators shimmering in the distance from about 20 miles away, the only tall feature in any direction. Crickets chirp from the grass and at one point make a mass exodus across the road, bouncing off our panniers and sounding like popcorn. There are also nodding donkeys working away amongst the fields and the smell of crude oil causes us to gag whenever we find ourselves downwind of one. It all makes the taste of a cold, fizzy drink all the more refreshing and when we find a drive (ride) through burger restaurant with milkshakes we might as well have arrived at Nirvana.

Oil and agriculture

Decision making at a drive through burger bar

At this point in the trip Kirsty and I seem to have fallen into a resigned acceptance of each other. Spending 24 hours a day within a metre of each other for over two years makes for an intense situation to test any relationship. We share the same ambition to complete this ride but it’s clear that the current difficulties of the ride are bringing our frustrations with each other to the surface. There are a few mornings with breakfast eaten in complete silence. Somehow we need to hold it together for a few more weeks and that means trying to keep each other happy and trying not to forget why we’re here. After all, a bad day on the bike is always better than a good day in the office.

Kansas parking lot

Harvest time

Way back in Oregon we took a photo of a sign advertising Newton Bike Shop, “An oasis in the grassy desert”. That was 1510  miles ago and it seemed ridiculously far away at that point. A lot has passed under our wheels in the meantime but now we get to walk through the door and spend the night in their cyclists’ hostel. We’re joined by Charlie and also meet Dan from Florida who is also easing his way along the Transam. It’s just the evening we needed as we sit down to watch the film ‘Inspired to Ride’ following riders on the inaugural Transam Race.  We stuff ourselves with pizza and are given free use of the shop’s beer tap by the owners James and Heather who leave us to it.

These gloves have ridden over 40,000 km

Time for some new ones

James and Heather at Newton Bike Shop, Kansas

The film is a great chance to appreciate what we’ve already achieved and what exciting adventures are still to come and it suddenly all comes back into focus. We’ve come this far so surely we can finish the job? The three of us: two crew members and a bike all have our grumpy days but surely the good days far outnumber them? So long as we continue to function as a team we can get through the worst of times and that’s why I’m sure we’ll make it to the end. After all there are only 1700 miles left to go.

A fitting sign in Newton Bike Shop




West Yellowstone, MT to Walden, CO

The events in this blog happened 3.5 years ago at a time when the current news unfolding and unravelling around the world were unthinkable. But amongst all of the troubles and losses caused by the pandemic some little gems are emerging as people use their forced isolation to be creative, connect with people, help their communities or just have a bit of a tidy up.

For my part, this week I’ve dug our vegetable patch, taken part in an online dance party and decided to start filling in the gap in our blog that somehow never got written. Some of the details will no doubt have been lost in the fog of my memory but I’ll try and tell the story of our journey from Wyoming to the finish line in installments over the next few weeks.

2nd September 2016 – 10th September 2016

On our first night in Yellowstone we’re treated to a talk by Ranger Jack who tells us a bit more about the park. “There are 10 wolf packs and 250 grizzly bears but these animals tend to stay well clear of visitors. You’re much more likely to be gored by a bison, burn to death in a boiling mud pool, drown, get crushed by a dead tree or fall off a cliff. A lot of of these things happen to people while they pose for a selfie.”

Entering Yellowstone Park

Elk stopping for a drink

We’re now in Wyoming, our 5th state

We emerge from our tent the next morning after a sleepless night worrying about the old, creaking tree next to our tent. We rescue our food and stove from the steel bear box provided to stop inquisitive bears stealing visitor’s pic-a-nic beaskets. Or stealing visitors.

Bear Box

There’s a rule in the park that you should not get any closer than 100 yards of bears or wolves and 25 yards of all other animals. What they don’t tell you is what to do if the animal approaches you. So when an enormous bison ambles up to our tent as our porridge bubbles away on the stove we sit tight and hold our breaths. He’s a colossal animal but seems entirely uninterested in our breakfast so we breathe a sigh of relief when he continues on into the forest.

A visitor for breakfast

Ahead of us lies 2.2 million acres of forest, mountains, rivers and lakes all supercharged by one of the largest areas of geothermal activity in the world. We’re sharing it with a convoy of tourist buses as we’ve managed to arrive for the Labour Day weekend, a national holiday. Despite the crowds, it’s a very impressive sight. We spin up to the lower geyser basin for our first views of boiling hot ponds, bubbling mud pits, steaming fumaroles and spitting geysers. The smell of sulphur lingers in the nostrils everywhere we go.

Kirsty at The Blue Lagoon

Petrified trees with white ‘bobby socks’

Further up the valley we find the Grand Prismatic Spring, an enormous, rainbow coloured, steaming phenomenon spilling into the hot river that we’ve been following. I’d seen photos of this many times and was suspicious that it could actually be real but here it was before our very eyes in all its multi-coloured glory. The early explorers had the same problem when they reported their findings back to Lewis and Clarke for the first time. Their tales of 100 foot geysers, volcanoes and hot rivers surrounded by beasts of all shapes and sizes were initially laughed at as being the stuff of fantasy.

Grand Prismatic Spring

Visitors on the boardwalk

The main event for many is Old Faithful and the park authorities know it. They’ve built what amounts to be a small stadium around the geyser behind which are hotels, restaurants and fast food cafes. We all gather on the benches ready for the next performance which takes place every 90 minutes. As the time ticks by the crowd gets restless and I half expect someone to shout “Get on with it!”. Then there’s a short spurt of water from the crater as everyone gasps and moves a bit closer to the edge of their benches. Another spurt and another collective gasp. Then WHOOOOOSSSSHH! 30,000 litres of boiling water launches 50m into the air and we all “ooh” and “ahh” as if it’s a firework. In typical American style there’s a round of applause for the geothermal feature. Thank you Old Faithful, that was truly impressive and the extra 10 minutes we had to wait meant that it was bigger than average.

Waiting for Old Faithful

Thar she blows!

On a plateau like this it’s easy to forget how high up we are so it comes as a surprise when we winch up the next couple of passes and see that we’ve crossed the Continental Divide for the 2nd (2515m) and 3rd (2556m) time. Our campsite for the night is next to Lewis Lake and we cross the divide once again before spinning down to find a spot for our tent. People used to use the ‘cook on the hook’ fishing technique here where a freshly caught fish would immediately get dunked into a boiling pond. They’ve since realised that fish probably don’t enjoy being boiled alive so the practice has been banned.

Yellowstone River

Yellowstone was always going to be hard to beat so it’s with some disappointment that we drop down out of the park the next day. Large swathes of charred trees line the road. We’re lucky to get out this way as wild fires had closed the south entrance until 4 days ago.

Passing the remains of a wild fire

We’ve only just begun exploring Wyoming and it’s a state that has plenty more to offer. Not least of which are the Teton Mountains that come into view just in time for us to admire them over a lunchtime picnic. We could have sat there all day but we have to turn our backs on this magnificent view as our road turns east and we begin our next big climb. Togwotee Pass tops out at 2900m and it’s too much for today so we’re forced to camp a few hundred metres from the summit. We’d passed a camp site further down that didn’t allow ‘soft sided shelters’ and the bear warning signs have been becoming more frequent. Our roadside clearing doesn’t have the luxury of a bear box so I collect all our food and cooking gear into a bag and climb a tree to suspend it from a high branch. Every crack of a stick and rustle of leaves has us tense up as we spend most of the night wide-eyed and nervous.

Grand Teton National Park

Getting our food out of reach

Overnight our tent is battered by wind and rain but thankfully no bears and I’m pleased to see our bag still dangling from the tree in the morning. It’s freezing cold so the last few kilometres of climbing to the top of the pass are very welcome to build up some heat. The ridgeline still wears a blanket of snow and huge jagged peaks stand all around us. Coming the other way we meet several other cyclists including Mya from Burma who is writing a cookbook for cyclists and Tim and Jimmy from Colorado who interview us on the hard shoulder for their newspaper.

Another visit to the Continental Divide

Mya on her way West

The descent off the top is a cyclist’s dream. Smooth roads and sweeping bends have me whooping with delight. The landscape begins to change with lush green trees giving way to arid red and orange rocks with painted ranches dotted alongside the huge meandering loops of the Wind River. We’re now in the Wind River Valley and it lives up to its name as a strong breeze helps us on our way to Dubois.

Dropping down from Togwotee Pass

Ranch in Wind River Valley

We spend the night at the Dubois Episcopal Church and are invited to dinner by the caretaker, John. His wife Julie happens to be a baker so we have to be polite by accepting her offer of tasting some freshly made cakes and leaving with a bag of tasty muffins. The church itself resembles a log cabin and proudly claims to be ‘very old’ having been built in 1910. John is a very proud of this until I tell him my home village has a church dating from the 12th Century!

Dubois Episcopal Church Est. 1910

The Wind River Basin is home to the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Native American tribes in the huge Wind River Indian Reservation. We roll into Fort Washakie to find a very run down town completely at odds with the smart little settlements that we’d passed through further up the valley. A large gift shop touts predictable souvenirs with hundreds of dream catchers, animal hides and t-shirts with wolves howling at the moon. The problems inherent in these communities are well documented but there seems to be little evidence of a solution.

Wind River Valley

As if to highlight the contrast between life inside and outside of the Reservation our next stop is Lander, a bustling little town that is popular with adrenaline junkies who enjoy climbing up and throwing themselves down the surrounding mountains. We find ice cream parlours, thai restaurants and a busy high street of shops that makes it feel like another country compared to Fort Washakie. Once again we’re incredibly grateful for our privileged position of being able to make the choice to keep on riding through all these places and to be looked after by kind hosts like Lydnsey and Mike. Lyndsey is another baker so when our bread gets eaten by one of their dogs in the night she replaces it with some fresh banana bread.

Drive through off licence in Lander

Lander bike frame fence

Lyndsey and Mike, our Warmshowers hosts in Lander

Wyoming is the size of the UK but has a population of just 500,000. This leaves some huge open spaces. It’s a 100km ride between Lander and the next town of Jeffrey City and apart from an RV park and a Mormon Handcart Visitors Centre there’s not a lot of life in between. Other than an angry rattlesnake makes its presence known with a furious shake of its tail as we climb up to the top of Beaver Rim. We’re nearing South Pass on the Oregon Trail that was a pivotal junction for the early settlers. At this point they had to decide whether to take the trail south to Utah, South West to California or North West to Oregon. Lives would be defined on this huge expanse of nothing.

Another day in Wyoming

Roadside rattler

Somewhere back in Oregon we’d been given a piece of paper by a Westbound Transam cyclist with recommendations for our route ahead. One line that stuck in our minds was that we must “…find the mad potter in Jeffrey City. We stayed with him and the night ended with him trying to put a fire out on the roof. It was wonderful”. Jeffrey City is a ghost town with a population of just 58. A far cry from its boom times in the 60s when thousands moved here to work in the nearby Uranium mine. A huge high school was built, several churches and even an Olympic sized swimming pool. But when the Uranium market collapsed in the late 70s almost everyone moved away, some even taking their houses with them. What’s left are a few hardy souls who like solitude, and some enormous buildings that stand empty.

A Church in Jeffrey City

Abandoned buildings, Jeffrey City

Closed cafe, Jeffrey City

The Monk King Bird Pottery is easy to spot by the side of the road so we park up and poke our heads through the door. A scribbled sign instructs us to make some noise and if no-one appears then try the bar across the road. “Hello?” I call out. There’s a murmur from a pile of blankets in the corner and a bearded face pears out. This is Byron, the potter and Transam legend.

The Monk King Bird Pottery, Jeffrey City

He rubs his eyes and begins to take in the two people standing in front of him. “Ah, you’re bicyclists! You can stay in my bus!”. The pottery is a complete mess but there are plenty of finished articles for sale. His best sellers are a range of mugs with bullet holes in them. Tourists on their way to Yellowstone shoot them when the clay is still wet and by the time they come back Byron has fashioned them into a useable mug.  “But why is it called the Monk King Bird Pottery” we ask Byron. “I wanted it to be called the Mocking Bird Pottery but the sign writer misheard me”.

Byron, the potter

‘Shot’ Mugs

Settling in to Byron’s partially converted bus

Byron introduces us to his neighbour Chuck who lives in a tiny house next door. He moved the house from the mountains a few years ago. Chuck is a colourful character who served in the Vietnam war, worked as a cowboy, as an actor and in the uranium mines. He now spends his days as an artist and keeps his severed finger on a keyring. This is a town that seems to attract real characters.

Chuck

Chuck’s unique keyring

The next couple of days take us over the wind blown expanse of the Great Divide Basin and onto Rawlins where we’re kicked out of a park by an apologetic policeman. Some towns encourage camping in their parks while others don’t and this is one of the very few times in the entire trip where we’ve been asked to move on.

Split Rock

We love strong winds

As we begin our last day in Wyoming we leave our secluded camp spot behind a church just outside of Riverside. It had been a chilly night with outside temperatures dipping to -5°C so both of us are tired and tempers are on edge. To make matters worse the bike has been moaning too with a broken gear cable needing to be replaced before we can set off.

Riverside Christian Community Centre

We stock up in Riverside then venture out onto the Skyline Road. A steady climb takes us into a sparse landscape that has become the default view for this state. Suddenly the chain jams and upon inspection I see that the cage of the rear mech has cracked. I try to bend it back into shape but as soon as we try to pedal again the chain jams again and drags the mech into the wheel to break a couple of spokes. Dammit!

As we contemplate our next move a ranger’s truck pulls over and Melanie jumps out to see what the problem is. She rummages in her truck to find a hammer which I use to try and bend everything back into a useful shape but it’s not looking good. She explains that it’s 100 miles to the nearest bike shop and then spends half an hour ringing round everyone she knows to see if someone can help. It turns out that a man called Jeb can. He speeds over to collect us and takes us back to his house a few miles away. In his enormous workshop stands an old mountain bike that he offers as a ‘donor’ bike. I immediately set to work transplanting the necessary parts onto our bike and replacing our broken spokes. Before long we have a working bike again. Jeb is not only a keen climber and occasional mountain biker but also happened to be a former State Senator. He’s more than happy to help and refuses payment for the parts so we promise to send a gift from the UK once we get home.

Ranger Melanie, our road angel

Former Senator Jeb

He drops us back where we left off and we continue up and over into our next state of Colorado. As we spin along the long, straight road chirping prairie dogs warn the rest of their village of our arrival. By 7pm we’re in Walden and are joined for dinner by Melanie.who has kindly brought some super warm sleeping bags to borrow for the night. She’s in charge of controlling a nearby wildfire where another 30,000 acres are currently burning. Just another normal day for a Wyoming ranger.

The road is long, with barely a winding turn.

We toast the sheer luck that she happened to be passing when she did as at earlier today we didn’t imagine we’d have arrived here by bike. The road has treated us very well in Wyoming but now we have the last of the Rockies to contend with along with the highest climbs of the Transam. Let’s hope our luck continues into Colorado.

Colorado. Put your snow plow away.

You can find a few more photos in our Gallery




Santiago de Cuba to Havana

22nd January to 13th February 2018

“So, why Cuba?” asks David, as we sip on Cuba Libres on his balcony in Havana. We’re still in short sleeves despite it being 9pm on a January evening with the heat of the day stored up in the chipped concrete all around us.

It’s a good question without a single answer. There are many aspects that make this island an appealing prospect for cycle tourists with flat, quiet roads, a  few mountains for the grimpeurs, miles of sandy beaches and year round warm weather all wrapped up in a unique culture shaped by a complicated history. Alongside this, the message from other visitors had been a resounding “Go now before it changes!” as if the western world was waiting offshore about to launch McDonalds restaurants and Tesco supermarkets at any minute. At the risk of sounding like a box ticking exercise, Cuba was also the last of the five remaining communist countries for us to visit and we were curious to see how it compared to the others.

There were a few reasons for us not to go as well though. The governing regime likes to keep control of what happens in their country which imposes certain restrictions on where you can stay which in turn limits where you can get to. As a result many cyclists travel without a tent as camping is prohibited, and stick to the main tourist regions. This style of travelling sounded less appealing with the lack of flexibility, lack of variety and inevitable increase in cost being common criticisms.

But then we found a report from bikepacking.com that gave us hope that there was another way to see the island. Following a mostly off-road route, three Americans rode from east to west and enjoyed the freedom to get away from the more popular areas, camping without being challenged while being welcomed with open arms by everyone they met. This was much more encouraging, and with a tip off for a deal of half price flights the decision was made to give it a go.

With the first turn of the pedals as we rode away from Havana airport my mouth curved into a smile. I’d missed that familiar feeling of freedom that comes from sitting on a bicycle with everything I need attached to it. Behind me Kirsty called out the directions to get us into town before speeding past me as we turned onto the almost deserted highway. There was no doubt that she was pedalling because for this trip we had broken with tradition and brought two bikes. Kirsty’s was a vintage Specialized Hardrock bought for £15 from a charity shop while I was on a 30 year old Post Office bike complete with an enormous tray on the front and a Sturmey Archer 3 speed hub spinning away at the back.

Our trusty steeds at the start of their journey

Taking the cat for a stroll

Fidel lives!

Bici-taxi

Ernest Hemmingway’s favourite bar

Cigar factory

Fruit market

The first hurdle to our usual way of travelling  is that hosting foreigners in Cuba is illegal without a licence, which makes the concept of WarmShowers and Couchsurfing difficult in theory. You’re supposed to stay in government run hotels or casas particulares – a licenced home stay. In practice we found that ex-pats from other countries who live in the suburbs are more likely to get away with it so we found ourselves staying with Maria and Jonathan for the first few days in Havana. A couchsurfing love story, Maria from St Petersburg was hosted by Jonathan in Strasbourg and the visit eventually resulted in a wedding. Through Couchsurfing we also met up with David, a Cuban who loves to help others enjoy his home country. Although we couldn’t stay with him, he became an invaluable ‘fixer’ during our trip and also provided a fascinating insight into life on the island in 2018.

David, our new best friend

After a 17 hour journey on an uncomfortable bus with an over-enthusiastic air con system we arrived in Santiago de Cuba, 1000km east from Havana. David had arranged for us to stay with some of his family here so we spent the first night enjoying some wonderful Cuban hospitality. Fidel was no doubt turning in his grave in the cemetery round the corner as we tucked into rice and beans while our hosts showed us the latest dance moves. Music is intrinsic to everyday life in Cuba with rhumba and salsa rhythms  pouring from every open window. 

Santiago de Cuba

Marlene and her neighbour, our hosts in Santiago

Fidel Castro – 1926 – 2016

It seemed fitting to be beginning our ride skirting round the Sierra Maestra mountains where Fidel and Che set the wheels of the revolution turning in 1956. The foothills take us up away from the busy city and down past palm trees and colourful adobe houses. Life in this region seems to take place at a leisurely trot with motor vehicles few and far between and one horse power being preferred.  Unfortunately one of the few trucks that does pass us manages to pull in a bit too soon after overtaking and forces Kirsty off the road. Her tyres get caught in a rut and she’s promptly thrown from the bike. Of course it’s her ‘bad’ knee that takes the brunt of the fall and it loses a layer of skin. It’s a painful first day that will leave another scar that tells another story. 

Into the Sierra Maestra mountains

 By the time we reach the town of Manzanillo the hills have given way to huge plains of sugar cane, their tips bending in our direction of travel as the wind provides some welcome assistance.

Sugar cane

You’re never more than a few metres from a picture of Che

A huge screen in the town square is showing the final of the baseball league between home team Granma province and neighbouring Las Tunas. Everyone seems to be here and when the final whistle blows to seal the victory for Granma it’s bedlam. From nowhere drums, cowbells, banners, whistles and stalls fill the square with noise and music and colour so we join in the spontaneous party that parades round the streets. Some of the best experiences when we’re travelling happen by chance, a case of being in the right place at the right time.

Manzanillo town watching the big baseball game

Kirsty making some new friends

Post match party

Everyone was happy that Granma Province had won

As we continue west we dip on and off the route described in the bikepacking.com article. Affectionately named ‘La Ruta Mala’ or ‘The bad way’ it follows rutted, muddy tracks, through thorn bushes that lacerate our legs, and into saddle high undergrowth. When the ‘ruta’ got a bit too ‘mala’ we find respite on the smoother carretera central, the main artery across the middle of the island. Although not as exciting as the rough roads this highway does have the advantage of being serviced by occasional roadside cafes to help keep us cool and hydrated as the temperature rise into the mid 30s. For 1 national peso we can buy an ice cream and another peso buys us a coffee. 1 national peso is less than 3 British pence.

Sharing the road

Bloody thorns giving us bloody legs

There’s a path there somewhere

Cuba operates a slightly confusing dual currency system with Convertible Pesos (CUC) valued 25 times more than National Pesos (CUP) . Basic goods and services are sold by state run shops that charge in CUP while imported goods and anything intended for consumption by foreigners are charged in CUC. It’s not always clear which currency prices are being quoted in and there is the opportunity to pay 25 times more than you should if you get it wrong! It also means that popular tourist destinations are considerably pricier than the more workaday towns that barely anyone visits. That 1 CUP coffee would be 1 CUC in Old Havana.

Strong, sweet coffee

One skill you never lose once you’ve been cycle touring for a wile is the ability to spot a good camp spot. Even after we’d finished our last trip we’d still automatically look out for patches of grass next to rivers, secluded copses or little hill tops that would be ideal for pitching a tent whenever we were out and about. So it wasn’t too tricky to find somewhere to sleep each night, off the main road and out of sight. Or at least somewhere where no-one would mind.

There was only one night where we got caught out. As the sun dipped below the horizon we were riding past endless fences on one side and a soggy marsh on the other. Eventually we arrived in a village and asked someone if it was ok to camp on some open ground on the outskirts. A shake of the head was not the response we wanted, but then he offered to drive us to the nearest ‘Campismo’ – somewhere with pre-pitched tents and cabins. A kind gesture but one that would take us 15km in the wrong direction and leave us somewhere that foreigners were unlikely to be able to stay. Some swift Google translating to explain we had our own tent turned the situation around and we were ushered into a garden and told we could pitch there. Our immediate neighbours were a flock of chickens and a herd of pigs but inside the tent we were safely in our home from home. These small villages were often filled with animals as cowboys guide their herd down the high street and goats graze the verge. This is the way of life for a large proportion of the population.

Back yard camping

Rice drying in the street

Getting stuck in traffic

It’s a tricky place to be totally self sufficient though as buying food to cook for ourselves would have been nigh on impossible. Food shops do exist of course but are hard to find and have unexpected contents. Peering through a doorway, the first clue that it was a shop would be the set of scales on the counter. Alongside it might be some sacks and a few large jars with unknown contents. The rest of the stock would almost always be made up of rum, cigarettes, flip flops and electric fans. There might be a few slabs of raw meat too if you get there on the right day. Cubans still receive a ration book so these essentials are provided by the state but for visitors who just want a bag of pasta and some tomatoes the shops were sadly lacking.

Essentials for sale: rum, beer and cigarettes

Luckily the abundance of cafeterias in every village provided enough sustenance to keep us going. These state owned establishments have a largely identical menu based on what is available that day. We dined out on rolls filled with eggs or meat or spam for breakfast. Pizzas for lunch then if we found a proper restaurant, dinner of rice and beans, usually with pork and a side salad. These are all charged in national pesos and a day’s food cost us about £1 each.

5 peso (15p) Pizzas

The bakery in Dormitorio

Menu de dia

Refuelling

Rehydrating

After crossing the flat, cattle country of the central provinces, the next range of mountains appeared on the horizon. Before we got to them though we took a detour up to a farm that David had suggested we visit. Finca del Medio began life out of necessity during what Fidel named Cuba’s ‘Special Period’ in the 90’s. The collapse of the Soviet Union pulled the plug on a lot of the funding that had kept Cuba going and the state began struggling to support its people. They began to starve. José Casamiro and his family decided to take matters into their own hands and moved out of the city and onto a patch of rough land in the country to try and fend for themselves. 25 years later and they have created a rich and fertile farm that produces 98% of the food that the family and its frequent guests consume. Using permaculture techniques, they grow everything from plantain, yucca, rice, and taro to coffee, tea and sugar. Barely anything is wasted so energy use is minimal. Even the waste from the toilets feeds into a biodigester that then produces gas for the kitchen. They are part of a growing organic movement in Cuba that is spreading amongst smallholders and they hope will spread to the larger farms too. 

500km to Havana

Taking a tour of the Casamiro family farm

A feast being prepared

Plantain

José loves to teach other farmers how his family works and on the day we arrive a group from Switzerland are coming to have a look around which is good timing on our part as we join in the feast that has been prepared for them. Two Canadians, Charles and Jonathan, are also staying and are full to the brim with enthusiasm about what they are learning. It’s infectious and we can’t help thinking about how we could try to reinvigorate our veg patch when we get home. Kirsty gets given some of their homemade honey for her injured knee, one spoonful on the wound and one spoonful to eat. 

Jose and his family

Before we leave the next day we get to take part in the family’s morning ritual. A strong shot of coffee, made with beans grown on the farm, is topped up with warm milk squeezed straight from the udder of one of the cows. It’s about as tasty a cappuccino, and also the freshest that we’ve ever drunk!

Morning cappuccinos

Heading south from the farm we encounter a few hills that surround the Escambray Mountains and begin following the coast from the popular town of Trinidad. It wouldn’t be right to go on a bike tour without a ferry trip so the short hop across the Bay of Cienfuegos allows us to get our boat-fix while also getting us back onto the Ruta Mala. Before turning onto the sandy track we pass the hulk of a never finished nuclear power station. Construction started during more prosperous times but it was never fired up which, given the state of disrepair of everything else in Cuba, is probably a good thing

The Escambray Mountains

Church in Sancti Spiritus

 

Playa de Luna Beach

Ferry across the Bay of Cienfuegos

An unfinished nuclear power station

We bump along the sandy track, weaving through trees with occasional glimpses of the sea alongside us. The only other person that we see on the 60km stretch is a man riding along with a bird cage in his hand. What he’s doing out there with a bird in a cage is anyone’s guess. Then one of Kirsty’s tyres succumbs to the vicious thorns littering the track and not long after I get that sinking feeling too. Up until this point the Sturmey Archer hub has been brilliant. Yes it’s only got three gears but that was enough to get me up and down the roads we had been riding. With a tail wind top gear was a bit low but it’s all good for the leg speed. Now, however, the hub was to prove less useful. With the wheel off, a few vital bits of metal crumbled and fell into the sand. The washers that hold the axle in place had disintegrated which was a bad thing to happen at this point. Some bodging and over tightening helped get it all back together and working (with some creaking and complaining) for another 10km then a sickening clunk signals a fairly major mechanical incident. Hopping off the bike I can see that bearings are exposed that really shouldn’t be seeing the light of day and the wheel is at a jaunty angle. The axle has broken.

This doesn’t look right

As we sit and consider our next move a car pulls up and its French occupants ask what the trouble is. We explain and they offer to find a lift for us. An hour later a spluttering old truck arrives and we gratefully jump in the back. 30 minutes after that and we haven’t gone anywhere as it won’t start. Actually it had gone about 30m when we tried to push it. Some passing fishermen lend a hand but only succeed in pushing it another 30m so we jump out and I start to run the 15km to the next town while pushing the broken bike. There is some small mercy in this as we soon arrive at a secluded cenote which had been recommended as a swimming spot. On a hot day and after all the pushing this couldn’t be more welcome so we dive in the submerged cave before carrying on with the run.

A lift to nowhere

Swimming in the cenote

Our saviour arrives a few km further on in the form of Jeso who invites me to hop on the back of his motorbike and sling the bike across my shoulders. With Kirsty’s help we manage to load up and before I know it we speed off in a cloud of dust. Somehow I keep hold of the bike and manage to stay on board and soon we’re in Playa Giron where I’m delivered to a guest house and wait for Kirsty to catch up.

Our only hope now is to be able to buy a new rear wheel to be able to continue. The alternative being a bus to the nearest beach resort to spend the rest of the trip under a parasol ordering cocktails. Some enquiries lead us to a mechanic called Pico who we find surrounded by cranks, frames and spanners behind his house. Bikes are valuable forms of transport here so vital parts and components are much sought after. Despite having several wheels hung up on his wall, all of them are spoken for by his customers so he can’t sell any of them to us. We’ve run out of  options so we despondently push down to the bus station. While we wait, Pico’s assistant pulls up on his bike clutching an unusual bit of metal. It couldn’t be could it? Surely it’s not possible to find the axle for an English made Sturmey Archer 3 speed hub here in a little beach town on the south coast of Cuba? He holds it up for inspection and sure enough it’s just what I need! $5 changes hands and I set to work on the pavement next to a cafe. A couple of hours later, and with hands black with oil, the hub is back together. It wasn’t a perfect fit but I’ve got at least one gear and a wheel that goes round which is as much as I can ask for. The beach and cocktails will have to wait!

Pavement workshop

The rack on the front of the PO bike makes a great tool tray

One of the most famous events following the revolution was the Bay of Pigs invasion and it’s alongside this notorious stretch of water that we are now riding. Everything seems calm and peaceful now as the road follows the deep blue water on one side with dense forest on the other but every now and then a huge billboard reminds us who it was that won the battle.

Camping by the Bay of Pigs

Canopy of stars

“In Giron our party was forged”

Turning inland again, we cross the island passing orchards and huge collective farms.  A far cry from what we’d seen at the Casamiro Farm . On the outskirts of Coliseo we stop to watch some children practising baseball with the intention of using the pitch as our campsite for the night. Curiosity gets the better of the children so they drop their gloves and bats to come over to see what we’re up to, just as we were hoping they would go so we could get the tent up. Eventually one of the mothers comes to call them in so we ask her if it’s ok to camp there. She tells us it’s no problem so we begin unpacking with half a dozen excited helpers who then try to all get into the tent with us! Luckily the mother manages to drag them away and we’re left to sleep in peace.

At a cafe a man asked if I’d like to hold his bird of prey, so I said yes.

Baseball practice in Coliseo

We’re gonna need a bigger tent

We then join the northern coastline and arrive at the city of Matanzas. Like all of the cities we’ve ridden through the streets are busy with ancient vehicles that make for great photos but are not so great for the air quality. Clouds of black smoke pour from old Buicks and Russian trucks and we get a lungful as we climb away from the centre. Then we round a corner and suddenly find ourselves in a lush green valley of forests and farmland. This is the Valle de Yamuri and it’s incredible that it sits so close to the city but seems a world away.

Into Matanzas

A ‘ponchera’ repair shop

The Valle de Yamuri

Part way up the valley we stop for lunch and watch a convoy of shiny black 4x4s trundle past. Cameras and phones stick out of each window as their occupants hurry to capture a slice of rural Cuba. These trips are a popular excursion for tourists staying in the nearby resort of  Varadero and we see several throughout the day. It must be strange for the people living in the valley to be gawped at like this as if they are exhibits in a safari park. I hope a few of their photos featured two cyclists stuffing their faces though.

Jeep trek passing through the Valle de Yamuri

For the last stretch into Havana we take the Auto Pista which is Cuba’s answer to a motorway, only without the motors. It’s beginning to get more built up and we pass a huge rum factory, nodding donkeys drilling for gas and industrial plants before reaching the outskirts of the capital.

Looking over Havana from the Castillo del Moro

We’d arranged to meet up with David again so after a shower and good night’s sleep back with Maria and Jonathan we pedal over to his flat. “What did you think of Cuba?” he asks. How to answer that? It’s a fascinating country and works in a unique way. The lack of commercial activity and advertising make it feel so far removed from almost every other country that we’ve been to. The commitment to providing free healthcare and education has proved successful at raising life expectancy and literacy rates but has also nearly bankrupted the country. Everyone seems well dressed and healthy yet average wages are just $30 a month.

“But things are changing” David explains “much too slowly but we’ll get there”. Licences for private businesses are starting to become available under strict conditions which is a huge change from the 98% state owned system . Since 2015 the internet has become more widely available through specific wifi hotspots (identifiable by the dozens of people sat around looking at smart phones). Raul Castro is set to stand down in April so some fresh blood may bring new ideas. There was even a glimmer of hope that they could start trading with the US until the change of staff at the White House.

But despite the mistakes and hardship over the years David is clearly proud of his country and what the revolution has achieved. He believes the revolution has shaped them and they can help shape the revolution. Whether it can continue to evolve and survive remains to be seen but Cubans are resilient and resourceful so I’m sure they’ll give it everything they’ve got.

Scaffolding in Havana

A staircase souvenir shop

Havana by night

We leave David with his customary big hug and also with our two bikes. We’d always planned to donate them to a worthy cause as it’s so hard to get bikes here and they can make such a difference. David tells us that he plans to take them to his uncle’s farm where they will be a great help for his family. It’s an emotional farewell as the bikes have served us admirably, if not always reliably. The post office bike was great fun and the tray at the front was handy for carrying awkward items like wet tents and pineapples. But the star of the show has to be Kirsty’s £15 Specialized mountain bike. That bike had allowed her to pedal 1200km across Cuba, even carrying most of the bags for the last few days after my wheel broke, and that’s a whole lot of adventure for for less than the cost of a slap up meal back home.

Would we recommend Cuba to other cyclists? Absolutely, but go now before it changes. And take a tent.

At journey’s end. Spot the difference.

Classic 90’s MBUK stickers on the Specialized

Customised mud flap (available from www.chipmumf.etsy.com)

David taking ownership of our bikes

Kirsty

Marcus

Long term Havana resident, Ernest Hemmingway wrote “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.”

Below is a map of our route showing where we spent each night. Purple indicates a night in the tent, red are Casa Particulars and green are couch surfing hosts.




Home is Where the Yurt is

It’s been over seven months since we returned from our jaunt around the world by tandem which is the longest amount of time we’ve spent in any one country in the last three years. Time is a funny old thing though and can be stretched or compressed depending on what you’re up to.  A day full of constant changes and new encounters seems to last a lot longer than a day with a routine in a familiar place. So if you want a week to feel like a month then go cycle touring. If you want a month to feel like a day then stay at home.

Since the bike got parked up life has taken enough twists and turns to keep us entertained. The sore knee that Kirsty was nursing for the last few weeks of the trip decided it hated stopping cycling even more than it hated cycling, swelling up and making for a painful Christmas on crutches. After some head scratching the doctors decided she’d contracted septic arthritis and rushed her into Redditch hospital for an intensive course of IV antibiotics. From a daily routine of pedalling miles and miles to three weeks in a bed on the wards couldn’t be more of a contrast. Eventually she was allowed to escape but it was clear that her knee would take a lot longer to return to its normal state as a pedalling powerhouse.

Kirsty with her drugs

The poorly tandem has also had some surgery to get the back wheel working properly again. On receipt of our damaged hub the folks at Phil Wood replied with an email that started with ‘Just wow’. The only piece that could be salvaged from the old hub was a single nut but that didn’t stop them honouring their warranty and sending back a shiny replacement all the way from California. The trusty machine has spent most of the year resting with just the occasional short outing but we feel that this is very well earned after lugging us around the world for so long.

The tandem gets to meet Chris Boardman’s Olympic track bike

Other than this, the main challenge has been adjusting back to life in civilised society where sleeping in parks and washing in rivers is generally frowned upon.  We opened up the container where all our possessions are being stored and after a quick glance shut the door again. Why do we own all that stuff? Besides, making decisions like which t-shirt to wear have become almost impossibly daunting. Getting used to driving a car again has also been difficult and to begin with I had to open the sunroof and windows so I knew I was actually moving.  Getting around by bike is still the preferred method of transport where practical. We’re slowly expanding our diet beyond the limitations of two pans and a petrol stove and don’t need to try and get the maximum number of calories to the dollar when shopping.

Stuff that has been in storage (and still is)

We’ve given a few talks about our travels since we got back

Soon we had to face the reality of being back in the UK though and the enormous and omnipresent ‘What Next’ question kept tapping us on the shoulder and asking, well, what happens next? The stock answer for a while was to grin and boldly reply “A second lap”. The world is a huge place and there’s a whole new hemisphere that we didn’t even touch but that’s an adventure for another day. So the alternative, in the meantime is to do what everyone else seems to do and that’s to try and earn some money so we can afford to stay in this expensive country.

The short list of options  looked something like this:

Deliveroo cycle courier
Pro: Get paid to cycle!
Con: Don’t get paid enough to cover cost of maintaining bike let alone buying food as well

Uber driver
Pro: Get paid to drive!
Con: Driving is rubbish

Lidl checkout assistant
Pro: Get paid to go to Lidl every day!
Con: Have to spend all day in Lidl

International bike courier for high price, low environment impact and non-time dependable consignments.
Pro: Get to cycle to other countries to deliver parcels!
Con: Market research suggests that we would have exactly zero customers

Back to what we did before.
Pro: Good salary, job security, benefits package
Con: 9-5 in an office in front of a computer for 5 days a week

For a few dreadful moments both of us had our fingers hovering over the ‘apply now’ button on listings on some faceless recruitment website but there had to be another way.

Kirsty learning how to be a shepherdess

Marcus learning how to be a gardener

Nearly two and a half years of cycling should have given us plenty of time to come up with a few ideas to make use of our skills in an enterprising way but to be honest we were so caught up with the whole process of actually cycling that a Grand Plan never really took shape. But in the cold light of a UK winter we began to piece together some of the things that we’d learnt throughout our journey and to mould them into some sort of business proposition.

A winter morning in Worcestershire

The overwhelming feeling that we’ve taken from our journey is one of gratitude.  The number of people who helped us get from place to place, day after day runs into the hundreds. Using the theory of Karma we’re seriously in ‘good deeds’ debt. So lots more volunteering and charity work required for starters and perhaps some way to make other people happy.

Marcus and Barrington on a ride with the charity Lifecycle

People would sometimes ask if we ever got bored on our journey but the excitement of new experiences discovering different places never wears off. If we can offer something new and different to people then perhaps they too will experience that surge of excitement?

Being outdoors  and getting to enjoy nature in all its beauty at close quarters is something that enriches the soul and shouldn’t be underestimated. Not enough people take the time to do it and some people think they can’t when really they should and they can.

There’s a risk that smart phones and social media will soon replace conversations and physical communities. Ok, that’s a sweeping statement but almost every city in every country (except Pyongyang) we visited was inhabited by screen watchers who didn’t say a word to each other. It would be nice if there was some way to switch off and look up more often.

Adventure takes many forms and means different things to different people but one thing that I think is clear is that life is pretty dull without it. I’ve mentioned Al Humphries and his concept of Microadventures before and it’s still a fantastic idea. If we can help people squeeze a little bit of adventure  into their daily routine then  they’ll feel better for it.

A micro adventure sleeping on Bredon Hill

Lastly we’ve seen a small sliver of how incredible our planet is but sadly we’ve also seen how easily it can be ruined. Minimising our impact on the environment is more important to us now than ever.

So how to wrap all this up into something that actually earns us enough to get by? After a couple of months living on my parents’ farm in the Vale of Evesham an idea took hold. It’s a beautiful part of the world made all the more special having been deprived of it for so long, and more people should be encouraged to visit. So we thought ‘let’s get people to sleep in our orchard!’ The idea needed some work but eventually The Orchard Getaway was born.

Borrowing from what we’d seen on our travels through Central Asia and after some fortunate browsing of eBay we became the proud owners of a yurt (actually a Mongolian Ger).  We added some bell tents and dusted off some dormant carpentry skills to set about providing facilities for people to be able to enjoy a stay in the country in comfort. It doesn’t sound much like the camping we were used to, but the point was that we wanted this to be accessible to anyone, particularly the ‘I don’t do camping’ set. How can anyone go through life without at least one night under canvas?? We hope our site gives them a glimpse of what sleeping outside has to offer: The sound of the birds, the fresh air, breakfast with the sun streaming though the trees, all with a hot shower and proper mattresses nearby.

What this orchard needs is a yurt

Ready to assemble.

You can buy anything on eBay

All the fun of camping with a few home comforts included

So here we are today, running an off grid glamping site providing little camping adventures in Worcestershire.  We had no idea what would happen when we got back from our travels but this seems like a good place to have ended up. Our summer is set to be a busy one as bookings are filling the calendar fast but so far the whole experience has been thoroughly enjoyable. New skills learnt, a few challenges overcome and we’ve met some lovely people along the way. Not actually that far from a day on the bike really.  Feel free to drop by if you’re in the area and if you arrive on a fully laden touring bike then you can stay for free.

Is it enough to satisfy our own hunger for adventure though? They say that when the travel bug bites it bites down hard so we still catch ourselves scanning the roadside for nice places to pitch a tent whenever we’re out and about and browsing other cyclists’ travel blogs for inspiration. It’s also a contagious little critter so as we try to settle down several friends are setting off on their own amazing journeys (including these two). But the great thing about our new business is that it’s largely seasonal leaving at least a month or two over the winter available for going places. And a month on a bicycle is a huge amount of time.

A sunny evening in the Vale of Evesham




The home stretch – Plymouth to Bristol

How many times have you heard that well used cliche “Live for the moment”? Well we’ve lived through  some very unexpected moments during this trip. For instance the moment the front tyre went pop at a very bad moment in Turkey. The moment when Kirsty woke up to find an Uzbek taxi driver was massaging her feet. The moment I popped my head in the tent and told Kirsty the bike was gone. But for all the unexpected moments there was always going to be one that was guaranteed, the moment when the journey would come to an end. 

11th December to 13th December 2016

After a night being rocked to sleep at the back of the onboard cinema we step off the ferry in Plymouth surrounded by thick fog and a colourless, grey scene that could only be British. Things soon brighten up when we spot some Marmite sandwich vendors excitedly trying to get our attention. Is this how things work in this country now? Returning citizens are immediately welcomed home with cheers, hugs, Marmite and a fry up? Actually this is a special treat laid on by our good friends the Biscos but I think it’s something that the government should consider. Another special moment. 

Back in Blighty

Stop me and buy one!

After mopping up the remains of what can only be described as the best full English breakfast we’ve had for over two years we’re ready to get going again. More familiar faces arrive in the car park in the form of the Whitley family then we swerve from the right to the left side of the road before heading out into the town.

The culinary feast that is a full English Breakfast

The Whitley family welcoming party

British roads are terrifying. There are queues of cars everywhere and the ones that aren’t queuing are driving at 100 miles an hour down roads that are barely wide enough to fit a mini. Ok it’s Christmas time and we’ve just come from Brittany where traffic only builds up when a farmer leaves a gate open and a few cows get out, but I don’t remember it being quite as bad as this before we left. A fellow cyclist comes alongside us and asks “Going far?”,  Kirsty replies: “Bristol” , “Really! Thats a long way!”, “We’ve been further….”.

We survive Plymouth and emerge onto a lane that begins to skirt round the edge of Dartmoor following the Dartmoor Way, part of the National Cycle Network. Our tyres crunch over wet, gritty tarmac, gaps in the high hedges on either side of us offer a glimpse to church steeples in the valley below, sheep munch away in the steep, rolling green fields. A scene and a road that could only be found in Devon and its simple beauty brings a smile to my face. Perhaps riding on this island isn’t so bad after all.

You don’t see these kind of lanes anywhere else

Looking over Dartmoor (spot the photographer)

Devonshire village church

We pass through the villages of Didworthy and Badworthy then past Buckfast abbey whose Bendictine monks have been blamed for many a Scottish brawl fuelled by their fortified tonic wine. We refrain from stopping for a sample, partly to avoid the risk of any violent tendencies but also because we have any another roadside rendezvous to get to in Ashburton. It’s a sign of how long we’ve been away that we left Kat with an imminent baby under her maternity dress and now she’s in a similar state with her second one. We haven’t even met the first! She and Stu have had an exciting couple of years that have probably been as exhausting as ours. As we’re chatting away and munching on mince pie Danishes someone calls out my name from a car in the street. James and Jess have driven out to meet us too and join in the reunion. James advises that the last obstacle on the road ahead to Exeter is Halden Hill which he warns “…is a bit cheeky in places”.

Stopping for Marmite sandwiches

With Kat, Stu and The Bump

With Jess, James and Jacob

Only in Britain can you see village names like Bovey Tracey and pedal up through a town called Chudleigh Knighton. Unfortunately we won’t be passing through my personal favourite, Nempnett Thrubwell.  But the smiles soon turn to grimaces as we hit Halden hill. We realise that “a bit cheeky” needs to be interpreted as “near vertical” as the chain dances over the chainrings into the lowest possible gear and we get to work winching up through the forest. The malfunctioning rear hub isn’t enjoying the strain and neither are we but somehow we get to the top in time to see the sun disappearing into the horizon.

Trago Mills, a genuine English castle

Riding into the sunset before Exeter

I went to university in Exeter so there’s a strange feeling of familiarity as we dash down into the suburbs and circle around the city. We pass the university rowing club, scene of many a cold morning outing on the canal, and then continue on down now pitch black cycle paths to the home of Digz and Lisa. Our first night back in England couldn’t be better, staying with good friends, reminiscing, telling stories and enjoying a home cooked curry, our national dish.

Draw bridge over the canal at Exeter

Britain really does have world class weather. There’s nowhere else that can match it for drizzle, mist and what weathermen refer to as ‘overcast’. This soggy atmosphere accompanies us the next morning as we approach the Blackdown Hills.  Since we left in 2014 we’ve crossed the Carpathians, the Lesser Caucasus, the Pamirs, the Himalayas, the Japanese Alps, the Cascades, the Rockies and the Appalachians and this is the final major geographical obstacle that we have to negotiate before home. The lane narrows, the leg cadence drops and we slowly begin ascending. The bike isn’t happy, Kirsty’s knee isn’t happy but eventually we summit at Dunkerswell, some 256m above sea level and survey the views all around us. At least we would have if it wasn’t for the freezing fog that covers the whole village. As we park the bike outside the local shop someone asks “Going far?”, I reply “Bristol”, “Really!…”

An ‘organic’ cottage

Climbing through the mist to Dunkerswell

As well as the weather, Britain is also a world leader in savoury snacks. I didn’t realise how much I’d missed sausage rolls, pork pies, pasties and scotch eggs until I saw the greasy display in the heated cabinet in the Dunkerswell Co-op. There’s nothing better than a steak slice to keep a cold hungry cyclist fuelled up.

If you’ve never had black pudding before, don’t look at the ingredients…

It’s going to take more than some overcooked pies to get us home though. As we push down on the pedals they begin slipping forward without moving the bike. Every other pedal stroke it works then it begins slipping again. The Blackdown Hills seem to be the final straw for the hub. With only 100km left of the trip it looks like this could be as far as the bike can go and in frustration I’m ready to chuck it into the nearest ditch. But no, we can’t be beaten by a mere technicality like this. There was that moment when the front fork cracked in Tajikistan but we managed to get it welded (it still holds to this day). The moment when the old rear hub fell apart in Laos and we managed to find another wheel to get us up to Hanoi. There has to be a solution. Digging into the rear pannier I pull out the finest invention known to man: a bundle of zip ties.

For a long time I’ve been an advocate of the theory that there’s nothing that zip ties, gaffer tape and pipe clips can’t fix and once again this proves true. After some fiddling around and with the sprockets firmly secured to the spokes we manage to get the bike moving again. It’s not strong enough to cope with any hard pressure but with care on the flatter sections we can pedal along quite happily. Unfortunately we’re still in Devon so there’s no avoiding some lengthy pushes over the last of the hills. We make for a sorry sight as I struggle with the bike while Kirsty limps behind, her knee getting more and more inflamed with every step.

Bodger at work

The old ‘zip tie the cassette to the spokes’ trick

Looking back down to Hemyock after a nice stroll up the hill

Finally the hills give way to the flatlands of the Somerset levels and we manage to get into Taunton, the next large town, only having to replace the zip ties once. Although the bike shop here would love to help, our requirements are just too specific to be able to fix it for us. Our ‘bombproof’ rear hub follows the rule that “The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair.” (from The Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy). Just up the road is St. John Street Cycles which just happens to be home of Thorn Bikes and is the birthplace of our own not-so-trusty steed, surely if anyone can help it’s them.

Begrudgingly we hop on a train for the 15km journey into Bridgewater and arrive shortly before the shop is due to shut. Our high hopes for a solution are quickly dashed when we’re told that they don’t have any spare wheels available for us to borrow. It seems even the largest tandem specialist in the country can’t help. “We can build a wheel up for you tomorrow if you like?”. Now with 60km left this sounds like a very expensive option so instead we ask for a fresh supply of zip ties and decide to continue tentatively on with the bodged solution.

The tandem returns to it’s home at St John Street Cycles

Our last night on the road is spent in Burnham on Sea. A less than auspicious location nestled on the banks of the Severn Estuary but with some very appropriate hosts. Before we get to them however there’s time for a pint of Somerset’s famous Thatchers Cider with my brother Justin. We last saw him as he jumped into a taxi in Tbilisi after our week together cycling through Georgia and the moment of our reunion is full of emotion and laughs.

Brothers in the Somerset and Dorset Arms

It turns out that Burnham on Sea is home to some original comedians. Not content with the industry standard “She’s not pedalling on the back!” hilarious jape, one observer shouts “Get yer own bike!” when he sees us ride past. This is by far the best tandem heckle we’ve heard to date so we have to congratulate him for making our day. Our final Warmshowers hosts for the night appreciate this joke too as Allan and Maggie have also travelled the world on a tandem. Being able to chat and share similar stories about the moments we’ve all experienced travelling on a bike made for two is just what we need to round off our last night.

Our final Warmshowers hosts of the trip Allan and Maggie

Checklist by Allan and Maggies garage door

I manage to squeeze a few more zip ties onto the wheel before we set off in the morning. This arrangement means we can change gear but we can’t stop pedalling. If we do, then the zip ties will break which we discover 1km after leaving Allan and Maggie’s house.  I attach a fresh set and then we’re off again. It’s the last day of a very long journey and it’s not far to Bristol now so the sights become more and more familiar. Up ahead we can see the top of Cheddar Gorge cutting into the top of the Mendip Hills, a classic road climb that I’ve scaled countless times. Today we’re looking for something a little less taxing for our route home though so make our way up to The Strawberry Line, an old railway line converted into a cycle path. Railway lines have the advantage of being as flat as possible so this serves our purposes perfectly. It also takes us past the home of Thatchers Cider in Sandford where we’re met by two cycling legends: Matt and Drew. Their warm welcome is aided by some complimentary glasses of the fizzy apple stuff fresh from the brewery. Somerset is to cider as Bordeaux is to wine, Porto is to port, Kentucky is to bourbon and Georgia is to chacha.

The Strawberry Line cycle path

A round the world tandemist, a transcontinental racing NLP Wizard and a PBP veteran

Cider and cake

Our small and slightly wobbly peloton then continues on to Yatton, increasing in numbers when we meet two lads from Birmingham who are on a trip from Brum to Burnham and back. Aircraft strength zip ties are issued in Yatton by the Las Vegas Institute of Sport‘s very own Director Sportif Dylan who informs us that they are “Stronger than the ones used by police as handcuffs”.  The riding has been anything but hard so far today but I eat a chicken pie to keep my energy levels up just in case.

Drew with one of the boys from Birmingham and a waving Matt

The roads we’re on now used to form my commute into work. I used to know every twist and turn and pothole but today it feels fresh and exciting and different again. Nick has joined us and we all make slow progress, counting down the kilometres. Even a railway bridge is enough of a hill to force us to get off and push so our lead-out men have to be very patient.

With what must be only 10km left to ride we get a a bit too excited, push a bit too hard and break all the zip ties again. The last batch get fitted and now we have to be extra careful as if these break then that’s it. We could walk in from here but that would be a disappointing way to end the journey. We crawl through Long Ashton then into Bedminster before we get our first view of the Clifton Suspension Bridge one of the most recognisable icons of Bristol. Another moment to capture and remember. A lump forms in my throat as we skirt around the docks, past the City of Bristol Rowing Club where Kirsty and I first met. Past the Cathedral where a car turns in front of us and comes close to knocking us off which could have been an even more disappointing way to end the journey. Unscathed we then roll down into traffic chaos in the centre of the city. It may have taken 54 zip ties and countless boxes of ibuprofen but it looks like the bike and its crew are actually going to make it.

A blurry Clifton Suspension Bridge. Still one of the finest bridges in the world. (a better photo of it can be seen here)

Riding along the Bristol docks past the SS Great Britian

The final few metres of the trip, surrounded by road works and traffic

Matt has not only been my wingman on many an adventure but he has also coached me through various races. I remember one piece of his sage advice quite clearly at this point and that is to remember to savour the finish line moment.  It’s easy to get carried away in those last few pedal strokes or footsteps and to not pay close enough attention to what is actually happening around you but it’s really important that you do. So much effort and time has been invested to get to that moment where you finally achieve your goal and if you blink you’ll miss it.

I reach behind me to find Kirsty’s hand as we gently spin up to the Roll for Soul Cafe, the place where it all began back on 16th August 2014, 851 days ago. This is the finish line, the end of the road, the completion of our journey.  We step off the bike for the last time and wrap our arms round each other. We’ve done it!

The Finish

After this moment it all becomes a bit overwhelming. I’d almost forgotten that it’s my birthday so the celebration of getting round the world is combined with a celebration of another lap around the sun.  Friends arrive to share a few drinks, some have come a long way to join us and it’s amazing to see everyone. There are so many moments in our friends lives that we’ve missed that it’s going to take a long time to catch up properly. Technically we’re still homeless having not had the heart to turf out our tenants just before Christmas. It’s tempting to pitch the tent somewhere in the city but at the same time we’re grateful for the offer of a bed for the night from our friends Lynn and Dave.

Dark and stormies to celebrate – the official cocktail of the Las Vegas Institute of Sport

Waking up in Bristol should seem very strange but at the same time feels surprisingly normal. We’ve become so used to adapting to new situations that it seems we’re able to settle into an old situation just as quick. But I think it’s going to take a long time to gather our thoughts about everything we’ve been through over the last 851 days. Behind us we can trace a tyre wide path that stretches full circle around the world and all along it are memorable moments.  So many places, views and countless amazing people. I’m not sure if linking up these moments into a continuous line makes the world feel smaller or the fact that it took a long time to ride around it makes us realise how big our planet is. One things for sure is that there’s a lot more to explore either side of that line and certainly a lot more moments left to live.

Sunrise over Bristol

I’ll be back with the much requested list of statistics sometime soon along with an extensive list of thanks to everyone who made the journey possible or helped us along the way but for now we’ve got Christmas and New Year to celebrate. I hope everyone has a great festive holiday and wish you all the best for an exciting 2017. Thanks for following our adventure.

….and if anyone can guess the exact number of kilometres that we finished on then they get to choose five items from our bag of international single serving condiments.

Lucky dip




Back in Europe – the beginning of the end

If there are any followers of our blog left then I must apologise for the increasing scarcity of the posts. One of our aims for this trip was to spend less time looking at screens and as the journey has progressed that aim has been easier and easier to achieve, but at the expense of putting fingers to keyboards and keeping up to date with what we’re up to. Hopefully we’ll have more time to complete the story once the bike has been parked up. An event that is now rapidly approaching.

But to briefly bring you up to speed. We left the States at the beginning of November and found ourselves on the Azores for a few days thanks to a well timed and well priced deal on a flight. From there we had the shock of not only returning to mainland Europe but also hearing that Trump had won the US election. You know how people remember where they were when they hear about a groundbreaking news story? For us the day of Trumpageddon took place when we were in Lisbon.

Sunset over Lisbon

As well as tiny coffees and tasty pastries, Europe is of course full of ancient history and for hundreds of years pilgrims have been making the journey to Santiago de Compostela in Spain on what is known as the Camino de Santiago or ‘The way of St James’. We decided that these routes would be a nice way to shape our journey north so we attached a scallop shell to the bike and followed the Portuguese Way up to Porto then into Spain to collect our certificate in Santiago itself. Then going against the flow of pilgrims we picked up the Camino del Norte to ride up to the north coast of Spain and along the bay of Biscay to Bilbao.

Collecting stamps in our pilgrims’ passports

Santiago de Compostela

There are Camino routes all over Europe and in fact one starts in our home town of Bristol. A trail of yellow arrows can be followed up the atlantic coast of France, using the Velodyssey, Euro velo 1 cycle route and then into England for the final stretch.

Following the Velodyssey through France

So we’re now just north of La Rochelle, half way up France. A country that feels strangely familiar as the closest neighbour to England. Even though my schoolboy French doesn’t extend far beyond the first few chapters of a Tricolour stage one text book it’s still infinitely better then any of the other languages we’ve had to grapple with over the last two and a bit years. We can finally enjoy good cheese and great bread. Pain au chocolate for second breakfast. Vin rouge with dinner.

Tres bien

This last stretch has not been without its challenges though. The old saying of the rain in Spain falling mainly on the plane is a lie for the convenience of a rhyme. In fact the rain in Spain fell mainly on the tandem. The days are getting inconveniently short and the nights long and chilly. This does have the advantage of having more camp fires, though we’ve not learnt the French for marshmallow yet.

Pas de mallow de marsh?

Getting so close to the finish line it seems like everything is hanging together by a thread. Two tyres exploded in one day. A fork was left behind at a hostel. The stove splutters to stay alight and needs an overhaul. The rear hub on the bike has begun doing some serious complaining. The parts would take too long and cost too much to be sent from the manufacturers in California so we’re trying to nurse it through to the end with a can of WD40 and some tlc.

Kirsty has cause for complaint too after a nasty bout of sinusitis was followed up by a persistent sore knee. Rattling along with a box of ibuprofen in her pocket is not ideal but seems to work. My nose has been running like a tap from a cold that has been hard to shift. Tempers are on edge as if we’ve not spent time apart for over two years. But we’re holding it all together, just.

Another frosty morning

The question that is top of everyone’s interrogation is now what will we do when we stop? For ages we’ve managed to put off giving a serious answer to that by saying the end was too far away to worry about it. But it’s not now. The end is a matter of days and not many kilometres away. But our answers are still suitably vague.

Our lives have been incredibly simple since August 2014. Decisions have been not much more complicated than to pick a direction to ride in at the start of the day and to pick a place to pitch the tent at the end of day. In between we keep stocked up with water, basic food and cake and it seems to work out ok. ‘What’s next?’ could be something a whole lot more complicated but hopefully not. Either way we need to give it some time to mull over and see what opportunities take our fancy.

To be honest what I’m looking forward to is adjusting back to a life off the bike one step at a time. Enjoying simple novelties like wearing a pair of jeans, cooking something in an oven, sleeping in the same bed two nights in a row or having a shave (actually that might be taking things too far). More than that though we can’t wait to catch up with friends and above all spend Christmas with our families. Once we’re through all that then we can work out how to answer the ‘what’s next?’ question.

For now we’re enjoying the final few days of our journey. The last few evenings under the stars. The last few cafe stops. The ongoing hospitality of strangers. Beautiful winter scenery. Hopefully the last burst tyre. Soon we’ll have the last ferry journey, then the last road back to where we started. And that will give us plenty more to write about. See you all soon.

Location for Kirsty’s last birthday on the road




Good luck America!

“I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend.” – Thomas Jefferson, April 22, 1800

A few weeks ago we were sat in the back of Newton Bicycle Store in Kansas watching the film ‘Inspire to Ride’ which follows cyclists during the inaugural TransAm Bike Race. There’s a scene where a bleary eyed Mike Hall is sat outside the very same shop that we were in having taken just over 9 days to cover a distance that we’d been working on for 6 weeks. He went on to win the 4253 mile race in an astonishing 17 days 16 hrs and 17 mins. We went on to finish the same route in 78 days, possibly with some hours and minutes to add too.

James and Heather at Newton Bike Shop, Kansas

It’s a great film that for us served as a high speed review of of the roads that we’d already ridden and a fast forward preview of what was still to come. In a way it’s a shame that the TransAm racers don’t get to see more of the amazing places that they’re passing through as it really is an extraordinary route. Even at the relatively sedate pace we’re travelling at it feels like we could be spending more time exploring.

Bicycle Route 76 – The Transamerica Trail

From the endless sandy beaches of the Oregon coast, over the lava fields of the Cascade mountains. Open desserts, vast wilderness forests, prairies. Rising up to the mountains of the Continental Divide, and criss-crossing it nine times. Volcanic Yellowstone Park with its azure lakes, boiling mud and geysers. The massive Rocky Mountains then onto the painfully flat and breezy Kansas plains. Then painfully steep and frequent hills of the Ozarks before crossing the Mississippi and hitting the Eastern States. Autumn taking hold to decorate the Appalachians just in time for us to enjoy a colourful final run to the Atlantic. The TransAm trail can’t fail to impress every inch of the way.

Yellowstone Park, Wyoming

The highest pass on the route, Hoosier Pass, Colorado

Long straight roads.

Twisty roads too

But in that clip with Mike Hall it’s not the scenery that he talks about, it’s the hospitality and help from the people he’s met that he’s enjoying most. For us too we’ve been amazed by the kindness and friendliness that small town America has to offer. The TransAm bypasses the big cities and instead we’ve been visiting tiny towns and self-sufficient communities often miles from the next place. There’s an old-fashioned feel to these towns where everyone knows one another and a stranger is seen as someone who needs help and should be welcomed. And welcome we were. City parks on the route (usually) let us camp for free, chucking in a complimentary tent wash when the automatic sprinklers come on too. I’ve lost count of how many church floors we’ve slept on and how many different denominations of Pastor and Priest we’ve made friends with. A bus, several fire stations, an off-grid cabin in the woods, an old caravan, a horse-box, plenty of warmshowers hosts all provided a bed for the night. A ranger lent us warm sleeping bags on a particularly cold night in the Rockies while a former state senator rescued us from the side of a road and gave us a new rear derailleur to replace our broken one. America is a great place to travel through on a bicycle because you get to see the side of the country that is rarely captured by hollywood.

Pastor George. Palmyra , VA

Jeb, Riverside, WY

Officer Dave.  Tappahannock, VA

First Baptist Church, Sebree, KY

Horse box near Lancaster, KY

But although the old saying goes “Never talk about religion or politics over dinner”, when writing about America it´s hard to avoid either. Having spent three months cycling across from Washington State to Washington DC so much has changed in terms of our surroundings the people and the cultures but two common themes tying it all together have been the big white churches we’ve been staying in and talk of who will next take the keys to the big White House.

Trump Towers or Clinton’s Castle?

No doubt everyone is tired of hearing about the imminent election but I thought I’d chuck in my two penneth worth based on what we’ve seen and before the votes are counted. So as not to confuse i’d better explain that this post is being written after we’ve finished the TransAm but I will go back and fill in the gaps between Montana and Virgina with some more details. I just haven’t got round to writing them down yet due to all the pedalling we’ve been doing.

Since we crossed from Vancouver Island we’ve been counting the road side signs for each of the presidential candidates. The final scores were as follows:

  1. Trump 345
  2. Clinton 76
  3. Johnson 6

Whether this reflects the final result remains to be seen but it does show that Trump supporters are shouting loudest along the route we followed, (or like road signs more). Almost every conversation we had eventually turned to the election so we heard plenty of opinions and predictions and like the stats for the road signs the Trump supporters were the most enthusiastic. “Build the Wall!”, “He’ll shake things up!”, “Let him rebuild the country!”. contrastingly Clinton supporters would generally hold their heads in their hands and admit that they had to vote for her as she wasn’t Trump. Plenty of Trump huggers but not many true Clinton lovers it seems. However for most people the fact that these were the best two candidates that America could offer was the biggest sore point. There was a feeling that they deserved better and for that we offered our deepest sympathies.

As Brits, finishing the TransAm in Yorktown, Virginia has a certain sense of irony as this is the place where the British surrendered at the end of American Revolutionary War. From Yorktown we rode up to Washington DC where we saw the original copies of the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Looking at these documents and then watching the news it’s hard to imagine that a country built on such fine principles that were hard-fought for could possibly be passed in to the hands of someone with apparently no principles whatsoever. Surely we’ve met enough reasonable people who will stop that happening?

“Keep Trump’s finger off the red button” rally in DC

I truly hope that things work out for the best after next week’s election as this has been a country that we’ve enjoyed visiting a great deal, on the most part due to the amazing people we’ve met and they deserve a bright future. For our American friends who are following our progress, get voting, tick the right box and good luck! For everyone else, if you can liberate three months from your busy lives and have a bicycle and a tent I can thoroughly recommend taking on the TransAm. Do it soon though.

(Oh and if anyone is keen to see the US at speed, the Transam race 2017 is now taking entries…)