Au­thor and for­mer Sky News diplo­matic ed­i­tor ad­mits to al­most caus­ing an in­ter­na­tional in­ci­dent while rid­ing across the UK

Cycling Plus - - FIRST RIDE -

My brother got me into cy­cling. In 2011 he said he was go­ing to ride from Land’s End to John o’Groats (LEJOG) for char­ity, and my com­pet­i­tive streak kicked in. I wasn’t a cy­clist up un­til that point but I bought a bike and did three week­ends of prac­tice – 10 miles the first week­end, 20 the sec­ond, 30 the third – and thought, “Okay, that’s me ready to go”.

There were three of us on LEJOG, but keep­ing in a group was hard. We all had wildly dif­fer­ent lev­els of fit­ness, so we split up and met up three or four times dur­ing the next 12 days. At the end of ev­ery day I’d say, “Right, I’ve done 80 miles, I’m knack­ered now”, and pull over. I’d find a pub or Bed & Break­fast to stay in, go out for a curry, then start all over again the next day. I wore proper cy­cling shorts un­der a pair of nor­mal shorts and an or­di­nary jacket. The first 60 miles in Corn­wall felt like rid­ing through the Hi­malayas, but by day three I thought, “I can do this”.

I spent 20 years trav­el­ling around the world but this was a fan­tas­tic way of vis­it­ing places in the UK I hadn’t seen. I made a point of eat­ing food spe­cific to each re­gion – cheese in Cheshire, a balti in West Brom – and en­joyed hear­ing how the lo­cal ac­cent changed ev­ery 30 miles or so. This formed the ba­sis for my book, Dirty North­ern Bas­tards! [about foot­ball ter­race chants]. I vis­ited foot­ball grounds I’d never been to be­fore – Bury’s Gigg Lane, Cow­den­beath, ro­man­tic places like that. I did a naughty thing as I crossed the border into Scot­land: I had an old Eng­land shirt with me, and left it draped on a bush out­side some­one’s house.

I got off and pushed for at least a quar­ter of the en­tire jour­ney. I’m not too em­bar­rassed by that as I was car­ry­ing ev­ery­thing I had with me in a pair of ruck­sacks. I prob­a­bly couldn’t have done it with­out en­ergy gels, they were a life­saver. Be­cause I wasn’t ex­pe­ri­enced, there were times when there was just noth­ing in the legs, they wouldn’t go round, and I’d think, ‘Oh my God, how am I go­ing to get through the next few hours?’ Stop­ping for a Lu­cozade and a gel did the trick. By the end I’d had only one punc­ture and raised over £2000 for Alzheimer’s and Help for He­roes,

so it was worth it.

Now I’m “All the gear, no idea…” I have two Scott hy­brid bikes, all the kit and do up to 100 miles each week – about 60 com­mut­ing and the rest for fun – though I ad­mit to be­ing a fair weather rider. One of my Scotts has in­ter­nal hub gears. It’s only eight-speed, but great for city cy­cling be­cause if you pull up at traf­fic lights you can go down from eighth to first while you’re sta­tion­ary.

I have that male ob­ses­sion of not be­ing able to pass a bike shop with­out go­ing in and hav­ing a look to see what the lat­est stuff is. The last thing I bought was some bright yel­low shoes, I’m afraid I’m into hi-vis. I get re­ally wound up when I’m driv­ing around Lon­don at night and I see a cy­clist who hasn’t got lights or any kind of bright cloth­ing. It just doesn’t make any sense to me.

When you pull up at the lights in Lon­don, peo­ple are check­ing each other’s bikes out. I can’t be ar­sed with it. I don’t like all the snob­bery about it. What’s the point? You know all about bikes, so what? I know more about some­thing else than you do.

I put a fold­ing bike in my car when I go to watch Leeds United at away games. I can park three or four miles from the ground, cy­cle there and be back to my car ahead of the traf­fic. I lock it up out­side the ground, and it’s al­ways been fine. Charl­ton and Wat­ford have got their own bike racks. Oth­er­wise I’ll say to some geezer, “You go­ing to be stand­ing here long?” Tim Mar­shall’s lat­est book, Worth Dy­ing For: The Power and Pol­i­tics of Flags, is pub­lished by El­liott & Thomp­son.

Be­cause I wasn’t ex­pe­ri­enced, there were times when there was just noth­ing in the legs, they wouldn’t go round

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