The Hardest Word In Long-Distance Cycling (Is Not ‘Japan’)

Thirteen years ago this weekend I was sitting on my sofa at the start of the school holidays. It was 2008 and the Beijing Olympics had just started. Just outside the Chinese capital it was wet. Very wet. Nicole Cooke, the British cyclist was sodden, rain dripping from every square centimetre of her body. I watched, bleary-eyed (perhaps I was still recovering from the end-of-academic-year festivities) as she cycled under the fortifications of the Great Wall and then, as she approached the finish line, raised her fist and punched the damp air to celebrate her victory. She had just become the Olympic cycling road race champion. It was to become a pivotal moment in my middle-aged life. There and then I resolved to set off on an exotic cycling adventure…

Two years later I set off on a long-distance adventure that would see me cycle from southern England to southern Italy and that would later be retold in the book Crossing Europe… Three years after that I set off again to cycle from southern Greece to southern Portugal and subsequently wrote the book Along The Med… And in 2015 I did it all again by cycling from the southernmost point of Europe at Tarifa to the continent’s northernmost point at Nordkapp. Spain to Norway was published by Summersdale in 2017. The school children I now teach think I am rich and famous (in the cycling world). I am neither. (I do point out that if I were the former, why would I still be working in their school…) Yesterday – the final day of term – one student even brought me his copy of the third book to sign. That was nice. I’ve sold over 30,000 copies of my books, continue to write for this website, give talks at events across the country and now there’s even the podcast (episode 37 out later this weekend). I have done much in 13 years. My ambition set out back in 2008 whilst watching Nicole Cooke at the Olympics has been achieved and not only have I achieved that ambition once but three times over.

Or have I?

There is a problem and it comes in the form of one word.

exotic /ɪɡˈzɒtɪk, ɛɡˈzɒtɪk/ adjective: originating in or characteristic of a distant foreign country

You may think I’m being a pedant here, but I’m not. It may only have six letters but ‘exotic’ was an important part of that ambition formulated whilst watching the cyclists at the Beijing Olympics all those years ago. In the 21st century, no country in Europe can possibly be be referred to as ‘exotic’ simply because every single country on the continent can be reached easily and usually quite cheaply. In normal, non-COVID times at least. Which is why, when considering options for the next long-distance cycle, I cast my eyes beyond the confines of Europe. There were a few options; North America? New Zealand? But after some thought, the one I went for was Japan. It ticked lots of boxes. It would accommodate a manageable end-to-end cycle, be a fascinating place to visit and subsequently write a book about, would – if I got the timing right – allow me to see the Olympic cycling at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in person rather than vicariously on my television and, crucially, be an ‘exotic’ place through which to travel. My ambition would finally be realised.

I set about preparing; a new bicycle, Wanda, was purchased in 2019 and she was tested out on a trip to the Iberian Peninsula later that summer. The tickets to fly to Japan in early July of 2020 were secured and I agreed extra time off from work to complete the journey of 3,000km from cape to cape. Quite modest in comparison to my earlier cycles. I was doing my research, reading the books, looking at maps, making contacts… Finally, finally! After all these years I would, come the summer of 2020, be cycling across an exotic country.

You know what happened next. And what happened after that… 2020 was cancelled. And 2021 has been partially cancelled, certainly when it comes to any kind of ‘exotic’ travel. The Tokyo Olympics have started…

…and I should have been there. This weekend I should have been watching this…

…in person rather than on my computer screen here in Yorkshire. I’ll no doubt be doing the same thing tomorrow morning with the women’s race. The roads and the scenery through which Richard Carapaz and his fellow cyclists cycled today should have been the roads and scenery upon which I was cycling. Those exotic roads and that exotic scenery in that exotic country. But I’m not. Exotic really does seem to be the hardest word… 2022?

It’s sad, so sad
It’s a sad, sad situation
And it’s getting more and more absurd
It’s sad, so sad
Why can’t we talk it over?
Oh, it seems to me
Exotic seems to be the hardest word

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Categories: Adventure, Cycling, Japan 2020, Travel

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