I’M A RIDER TIM MARSHALL
Author and former Sky News diplomatic editor admits to almost causing an international incident while riding across the UK
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