These are the strangest of times. Lock down, working from home, furlough and strangest of all I only went and published a book. When the Covid-19 virus reached these shores and the country stumbled into lock down I suddenly found myself with more time on my hands and had a choice to make about how to spend it. There was the obvious temptation to sit on the couch and watch every box set known to man all the live-long day but there was a nagging suspicion that this might not be the best use of my time.
To prevent lock down turning into a jail sentence I made a list of things that needed to be done. It was a list leaden with DIY and gardening but also smuggled onto the list was an entry entitled simply “write a book”. But what to write about?
The obvious answer was a book about cycling but the hardest part of the whole process was coming up with a narrative that would tie all the loose strands together. After many evenings of just scribbling on scraps of paper trying to come up with a rough plan, eventually a structure took shape. It would be a book about the personal journey of discovering road cycling on the quiet roads of the Outer Hebrides on a trip where I rediscovered the innate joy of pedaling again. Conscious that there had to be universal themes, the book used that trip as a springboard to discuss the many disparate aspects of road cycling; the highs and the inevitable lows.
Writing the book was simply one way to handle the pressures of lock down. With the kids asleep and at the end of each evening, progress could be seen on the page (apart from the occasional bouts of writer's block) and it was this progress that meant that at the very least I was seeing opportunity in the strangest of times. More than that I actually enjoy writing which may sound perverse to some but as an engineer it is nice to also have a creative outlet and give the right brain some exercise.
Rather than tell you how the sausage is made, here is a sample chapter from the book to give you a flavour of the witty prose and insight that awaits the reader.
Gravity, a weak force?
17th May 2017, Sa Colobra Mallorca
I had just done one of the world's great climbs and only 12 minutes slower than the professionals. I felt like a proper cyclist. The road to the top that day did not start 9km earlier but five years earlier on a climb in the Outer Hebrides. It was my first taste of the pain and glory of climbing up a hill with just your legs and will.
17th May 2017, Sa Colobra Mallorca
Either physicists really do have a sense of humour or they have never had to ride a bike up a hill but try telling my legs as they scream to stop that gravity is a weak fundamental force. I hadn’t been a cyclist for long when I discovered the pain and the glory that hills bring.
Getting out of Tarbert on the Isle of Harris was the biggest hill I had ever climbed at that point in my short cycling career and it was at the top of that hill where I think I realised that cycling would be my new passion and I would be having affairs with hills from then on. When you become a cyclist you start to dream about hills.
The tribal nature of cycling extends well beyond the type of bike that you ride but the defining characteristic that links all road cyclists is a morbid fascination with going uphill. When a road cyclist looks at a hill they look past the inevitable pain and only see the glory of pedalling to the summit.
As I started on that climb that day on Harris I was fuelled fully by ignorance of what lay ahead of me. This wasn’t a long climb and it was only sporadically steep but it was my first tantalizing taste of climbing on a bike, just enough to get me hooked on the feeling, a feeling I have chased since then.
On the climb, your legs may be turning the pedals but it is your head that will get you to the top. You will search in vain for that extra gear as the mind starts to play tricks, but no matter how many times you shift the lever nothing will happen, all the oxygen having been diverted to your legs and clear thinking becoming impossible. You can stop of course but you know this will dilute the glory and there is also the very real possibility that you won’t have the momentum to get going again.
Although my cycling career had been short up until that point I did have some previous in the masochism of endurance. I used to enjoy and even win cross country races. Maybe enjoy is too strong a word but there was definitely something about pushing my body to its limits in the mud and hills and cold. As I climbed out of Tarbert I got lost in thoughts of those times and tried to summon up just a fraction of my old cross-country mentality, trying to eke out the last remaining watts that I knew lay dormant somewhere in my body.
The great thing about climbing on a bike and the one thing that forces you to keep going is that with every revolution the scenery becomes more spectacular. Opening your eyes to the world is the best distraction when the legs are screaming. This was not an epic Alpine climb but it was very typical of hills in Scotland. It hugged the coast for a few gently undulating kilometres, lulling you into a false sense of security that it might not actually be all that bad before suddenly aiming skywards straight up the side of the hill. In their flamboyant way the French may love a switch-back but here in Scotland we don’t suffer such pretensions and the road just takes-off without looking back. The carrot at the top of the climb is always just out of reach but never out of sight.
On these climbs the only way up is to find a gear, find a rhythm and talk yourself, quite literally at times, to the top. Sensing our struggle and complete lack of cycling finesse, cars would slow down as they passed so that the passengers could shout encouraging words, or at least I hope they were encouraging as pain was ringing in my ears and the voice of temptation on my shoulder telling me to stop.
It was on this hill that I discovered what I thought was an innate natural ability to climb hills. I would like to say this was due to skill and a high tolerance to suffering but the truth is much more mundane and physiological. Up until that point I had never considered my natural physique a blessing except for that very niche subset of potential mates that considered being able to see the heart through the skin a desirable quality in a man but being naturally light wins points in the game of power-to-weight. With so little of me to drag up the hill I found myself naturally pulling away from Gav that day and had a fleeting sensation of being an actual cyclist. Having decided on a whim that I would be a road cyclist, it was now apparent that my specialty would be climbing.
At the top of the climb I got off the bike and took an outrageously messianic and self-indulgent photo of me kneeling on the tarmac like a sailor feeling the sand in his toes after months adrift at sea. In my own way I wanted to mark the start of my climbing journey as a cyclist and I wanted to do it in the most ostentatious way possible. Let us be clear I had been climbing for all of ten minutes maximum but looking back now, I think it was in those ten minutes that I knew I would be chasing this feeling again and again. In those ten minutes, as the sun finally shone on our trip and the sea receded further from view, I became a committed cyclist.
The road plateaued for ten kilometres of cycling, cutting through the craggy hills that passed for Jupiter in Stanley Kubrick’s’ 2001: A Space Odyssey. To our left as we left Harris behind was the peak of Clisham, the highest peak on the western isles, keeping a watch on our progress. The grey, exposed scree and the dark green hue of the heather is unmistakably Scottish. What our landscape lacks in scale it more than compensates for in romantic nuance and the best vantage point is the saddle as you watch it slowly change from scene to scene.
126,254.7 Joules of potential energy somehow had to be lost when the plateau ended and the road swept back down towards Loch Seaforth. If you remember any high school physics then you can work out my mass from that but I am not giving it away easily.
The same force that made climbing an hour earlier so excruciating now wanted to hurl us off the side of the mountain. With a hairpin coming up that would sweep us right and then violently left I pulled in behind Gav and followed his wheel and put all my trust into his judgement of speed and friction. As he explored the thin line between a graceful sweep and road rash, around the blind corner a drove of sheep had ambled onto the road and were in no rush to get to the other side by the time Gav careered into sight. With my focus on Gav’s back wheel what started as a wobble quickly turned into a skid as he grabbed every lever in an attempt to scrub off as much speed before the inevitable. There seemed to be no clear path through this asteroid belt of wool, especially when the individual sheep all panicked in different directions.
I backed-off and watched through mitted fingers as Gav tried to thread his bike through the flock, the back wheel flicking out one way and then the other, the sound of bleating not quite drowning the gasps of the tourists observing the carnage from the nearby beauty spot. They had front row seats to some of the most unbelievable cycling I have ever seen. Skill or pure luck? In those ten seconds of hell our trip nearly ended that day and the Harris Tweed industry were almost a sheep down.
From that day on, descending has been something of an existential crisis for me. Instead of feeling relaxed and free on the bike I suddenly feel like I am sitting on the dentist's chair about to begin another round of root-canal surgery. Of course I have gotten better and gained confidence and my grip on the bars is fractionally less deathly but it is still my least favourite part of cycling. I watch the pro’s descend cliffs during the grand tours from behind my couch. They are not just going fast but they are racing and they are insane.
I always use the excuse that as a father there is no point in taking unnecessary risks but truthfully I have always been terrible at going downhill.
36 minutes and 52 seconds. Sa Calobra. Summer 2017.
Probably my best ever day on the bike and one that I will struggle to top. Butter smooth roads, glorious weather, barely a breeze and a world famous climb. I stopped for an espresso at the top, peak road cyclist attained, and thought back to that climb on Harris five years earlier. I could never have foreseen the way that cycling would fashion my world but it has been a blessing. It has made me seek out adventure. It has delivered me to some amazing places. It has kept me fit as I balance work, life and family and truthfully it has kept me sane.
Those ten minutes on that climb in Harris sealed it.
Truthfully the hardest part of the entire process was not the writing but the editing and eventually coming up with a title. Certainly the most time was spent on editing the book and making the narrative flow in a natural way. By the end of this process I was just desperate to get the book finished and published so that I didn’t need to deal with it in the evening again. It had got to the point where there was no joy in the process anymore and it was this aspect that at least had the effect of pushing me to get it completely finished.
Perhaps the proudest moment of the journey was that someone other than friends and family actually paid hard money for the book and was so impressed that they left a three star review! I will take a three star review any day!
You can check out the book at the link below and if you do happen to purchase it then feel safe in the knowledge that all money from book sales goes to a good cause; the David Lavery fund for buying cycling equipment that I don’t really need but definitely, definitely want.