The Cycle Touring Festival: Touring In A Time Of COVID

This weekend sees the start of the 2021 Cycle Touring Festival. It’s virtual once again so you can listen to the speakers and watch the films from the comfort of your own living room. You do need to register however for each of the sessions (delivered via Zoom) and you can find full details on how to do that by visiting the Cycle Touring Festival website. My contribution this year will be mainly in the form of a short talk in the first session at 8pm on Friday 12th February. The theme is ‘touring in a time of COVID’ and I’ll be discussing the motivation behind setting off last summer to cycle to the four capital cities of the UK as well as the journey itself. Below is a video of the presentation.

Touring In A Time Of COVID: Script

  1. Thanks Laura. And thanks for the invite to speak once again at the Cycle Touring Festival. Hope everyone out there is keeping well. I remember doing the talk at last year’s virtual festival and feeling extremely nervous, far more nervous that when you can see people. But those were in the early days of Zoom; hopefully we are all now more comfortable with the technology. Fingers crossed!
  2. My plan for 2020 had been to cycle the length of Japan. Fly to Tokyo, catch another plane to Hokkaido and cycle on my new bike Wanda from Cape Soya – the northernmost point of Japan – back to the capital in time for the start of the Olympics. Then, after a few days rest, continue south to the southernmost point at Cape Sata before a flight to Tokyo and then finally the long flight home. Clearly that didn’t happen. 
  3. So I was left scratching my head. After all the anticipation of Japan, I wanted to do something on the bicycle, but where could I go?
  4. Inspiration came from a book. On my ‘lockdown list’ of things to do was a re-read a book that I’d been given by my colleagues when I left my job as a teacher in 2014 to cycle from Tarifa to Nordkapp. Written in the 1920s about a journey that had been made in 1908 and 1909, it tells the story of Maximilian J. St. George’s epic 16,000 mile cycling journey around Europe.
  5. Here’s the route that he took. If you’re interested, I made a podcast all about Max’s journey and you’ll find it by searching for episode 21 of The Cycling Europe Podcast. In the introduction to the book, it’s mentioned that Max cycled to ‘every capital city of his day’ with the exception of Lisbon and Petrograd – modern day St. Petersburg – although I think this was inadvertent rather than planned. Anyway, it got me thinking. Would it be possible to cycle to all the capital cities of modern-day Europe? I came up with a route. It would take quite a while…
  6. But Max himself suggests a solution in the final few paragraphs of his book.
  7. He says: QUOTE (“Such a trip… really seeing Europe.”)
  8. “One trip could take up the British Isles.” There it was. My inspiration for a cycle tour that would be possible in 2020; cycle to the four capitals of the UK. (Not Dublin of course.)
  9. After years of fighting it, perhaps it was time to finally embrace Brexit. The Great British Cycle Tour 2020 was born. 
  10. So the plan was a simple one; cycle from my home in Yorkshire to Edinburgh, Belfast, Cardiff and London. I wouldn’t take the fastest route, as you can see here when I headed in the Lakes, but would pick a route between the capital cities that would be an interesting one. When I set off, only part one had been planned. I wasn’t sure if I would continue to Belfast after arriving in Edinburgh, but I did. Despite the weather. In Northern Ireland I did a little tour along the coast as we’ll see in a few moments and then returned to the mainland via Liverpool. Part three came a few weeks later when I thought the weather was looking more promising and followed the route of the Lon Las Cymru across Wales before a final dash to London and the finish.
  11. COVID, of course, couldn’t be forgotten about. The biggest impact it had on the trip was the accommodation. 
  12. My preference is always to stay in a tent but this needed some planning. As a lone cyclist, it’s usually the case that you can turn up at a campsite and you will be allowed in, irrespective of how busy the site happens to be. This wasn’t the case in 2020. Many campsites were either not open or were full because of reduced capacity and were being very strict about the limit on people. For the first time on a cycle trip for me, I actually planned most of that first part – and the third part in Wales – in advance by booking campsites. I’m glad I did. 
  13. Staying in hotels was less of an issue, and this is what I tend to do in big cities anyway. Thanks to you can leave this to the last minute and usually get away with it. 
  14. I stayed three nights with friends – two were planned with Suzanne Forup in Dunbar and with a friend in Reading – and one was a rescue mission by Craig who happened to be in the right place at the right time in Dunragit to rescue me when my technology failed me.
  15. I stayed with a couple of WarmShowers people in Wales; Joe in Prestatyn and Kath in Caernarfon. Some people I approached were understandably not happy about having people in their homes during the COVID pandemic but some were fine. This was the summer of 2020 when the restrictions had been eased so it wasn’t illegal to do so.
  16. And two nights in YHA hostels.
  17. Part One: Home to Edinburgh
  • I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I arrived at Catgill Campsite near Skipton. It would be my first night on a COVID campsite. I suppose the big advantage of camping is that you are out in the open air but, as with many of the campsites I visited, the rules for being in the communal areas were pretty strict; limits on numbers, cleanliness etc… and the cafés etc… tended to be closed. But basically it was still camping.
  • I met up with Rob Ainsley – who you can hear talk at the festival on Monday at 8pm – who helped me record something for a podcast I was making. He was also a good guide through the Dales…
  • …and then onwards towards the Lakes, covering some familiar territory along the Pennine Cycleway. This is 2009… and 2020. They still haven’t mended the fence.
  • A highlight further north was Winshields Campsite near Haltwhistle, the self-styled ‘centre of Britain’. Acres of space – no problem with being turned away although I did book in advance – and, under the new management of Malcolm, a fabulous place to stay and explore Hadrian’s Wall. Ignore what it says about the previous owners on Trip Advisor by the way! Just look at that for a view.
  • And then into Scotland and a coastal route to Edinburgh. This was the view from St. Abb’s Head. That picture alone would fill quite a few home schooling geography lessons.
  1. Part Two: Edinburgh to Belfast
  • I only decided to continue to Belfast when actually in Edinburgh. I suppose one of the nice things about cycling near to home is that you can go home should you wish. But it did mean that the next part of the journey would be far less planned than the first and that wouldn’t be good if the campsites were full. The weather soon had me doubting my choice to continue. Awful. It was so bad I just kept cycling – when you are wet you are wet – and ended up covering 190 km, finally stopping near the airport in Prestwick. My phone suffered from the damp too, finally conking out  for all but the briefest of moments.
  • I did manage to snap this photo of a EuroVelo sign before being saved from my technological woes by friend Craig
  1. It’s worth remembering that, even when we are prevented from leaving our own country, the long-distance EuroVelos do stretch across the UK and Ireland, although in my experience they tend to be less frequently signposted (hence my excitement at seeing the sign in Scotland). 
  2. As you can see here Britain is home to;
  • EuroVelo 1: The Atlantic Coast Route (that starts in Santiago and finished at Nordkapp)
  • EuroVelo 2: The Capitals Route (that will take you all the way to Moscow)
  • EuroVelo 12: The North Sea Cycle Route (which does what it says on the tin) and
  • EuroVelo 5: The Via Romea Francigena (the one that I followed back in 2010 all the way to Brindisi in southern Italy)

So you could make a start in 2021 and continue in 2022 and beyond…

  1. Back to Northern Ireland…
  • Belfast isn’t the most beautiful city but as someone who grew up in the 1970s and 80s, it’s a fascinating place for its political history. The Titanic museum is also highly recommended. When I visited I happened to be the first person through the door on the day it reopened after Lockdown 1. 
  • The highlight of this part of my trip was, however, outside Belfast along the Antrim Coast…
  • …and then at beautiful Portrush.
  1. I did return home after part two of the journey, sitting it out for a couple of weeks until I thought that summer would return. I took up sketching. 
  2. That’s not too bad, is it? (I don’t keep Wanda in the front room by the way…) Parts One and Two of the trip had been in the second half of July. 
  3. Parts Three and Four would take up the final week of August and the first few days of September. And just look at the weather! I had certainly chosen my moment well. Or had I?
  4. WEATHER VIDEO (no comments needed)
  5. Drenched once again, I made it as far as Anglesey at the end of day two and dived into a hotel. I think I got their last room. I took a pause on Anglesey cycling around the south-eastern corner of the island before heading the short distance to Caernarfon and the second WarmShowers host of the trip.
  • From thereon south I followed the route of the Lon Las Cymru. It’s a wonderful route, almost all of it well away from busy roads. I had a copy of Richard Barrett’s Cicerone Guidebook with me. He travelled south to north and talks about the gentle gradients. That’s not the case if you head north to south. Be warned! 
  • But it is, nevertheless, a fantastic route. Again, most of my accommodation was booked in advance and that was certainly required on the three campsites I used.
  • The weather did improve as you can see here as I cycled across the River Wye at the start of my ride to Cardiff.
  1. There isn’t too much to say about Part Four of the ride to London. Again, I was back on familiar territory having lived in the Thames Valley for many years. I arrived in London on September 2nd to catch the train home.
  2. I’d just like to thanks the various people shown here who helped with routes, advice, accommodation and the like. I met up with Paul Gentle in Bristol. He had an interesting COVID experience in 2020 as he had been forced to abandon a cycle from Tarifa to Nordkapp when he arrived in France. My advice for 2021 would be to have a go, but just be prepared to plan a bit more in advance.
  3. You can watch the film that I made about the ‘Great British Cycle Tour’ as part of the festival film programme. It’s also available on YouTube. 
  • As is another film I made about cycling in 2020 but this time a very different cycle. I took Wanda back to the Dales and I stayed in a ‘camping pod’ at the YHA hostel in Malham. I purposefully didn’t cycle far each day and it was a nice contrast to cycling the 2,000km around the UK.
  • And don’t forget that if you want to learn more about the early 20th century cycle of Maximilian J. St. George, you can do so on The Cycling Europe Podcast.

Thanks for watching and listening. 

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