Day One: Leaving Calais

Riding away from Calais, after weeks of deliberation, of not knowing if I would, could or should depart I felt ready. I am proud of how I have helped, in awe of those I have met. My soul a little broken from those I have met who are refugees, the hopelessness of their situation of the situation we all find ourselves living in where there are millions of displaced people with nowhere to be. No right answer. Now is time for me to go a little. I don’t feel guilty walking away right now, I have that privilege, I am free and I value it. For now, I am less useful than I have been, I have more to learn. I have more to see. I also want to ride. I can, I will and I will be stronger for it, more informed and better to help again before too long. The privilege that is freedom.

 

 

The first ride is a familiar one, away from the caravan park that I have called home for 5 months, living with fellow volunteers, next to a beach on the flat plains north of Calais. It is a beautiful day to leave on. Not because of fate, because I waited for the sun to come out before I left. With a steady head wind, I rode the familiar route to Gravelines with a friend from time in Calais, one who had helped give me the nudge I’d needed to go out and follow my dream to ride the world. A good egg, one of many I’d met in Calais.  A final farewell. On along to Borbourg I stopped to take some time and reflect and to look at the signed high viz jacket given to me by the volunteers, friends I had left behind. People who I would never otherwise have come across but who have given a richness and diversity to my social network. People who I have learnt a great deal from through our similarities and our differences. Amazing people who give up so much to help, each for their own reasons but mainly because in their minds it is the right thing to do.

 

Bourborg is an attractive town, simple, functional, non-commercial, cobbly. It  was hosting a weekday market, selling clothes, veg, fruit, shoes, meat.  The necessities, not the luxuries often associated with markets at home in the UK, The South. The scenes here resonate with an article I’d recently read, produced by the BBC http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-39284234. Le Penn posters are dominant in these parts. I can understand why.

 

Riding from Bourbourg to Lille is one I have done before, I love it. It meanders through flat French countryside, for the most part the roads are empty. Suddenly, you find yourself on a switch back, turning to overlook the French countryside below you. A few turns latera and you enter Cassels. A beautiful, cobbled town, wide streets a beautiful cathedral, wonderful views. All the better for the unexpectedness of its existence. I have stopped here before, I didn’t this time. There are plenty of coffee shops for those wishing to sit and watch the town pass by. Leaving Cassels is downhill on bobbly cobbles.  I had to stop to tape my portable cooker to my front pannier.

 

Turning off towards Steenvorde the road becomes smooth. Smooth roads lined by green and yellow fields take you to and across the border to Belgium, bike paths and car free roads, short sharp climbs and pleasant towns line the path.

 

It was fitting to ride out through Steenvorde, past signs to Norrenfont, both of which host small refugee populations of mainly Eritrean refugees which are supported by our warehouse in Calais in collaboration with other local organisations. Norrenfont was one of the camps who we provided bikes to following the #WrenchesforRefugees campaign. I had visited it the day before I left, taking a weekly supply of wood provided by Calais Woodyard and food provided by RCK.

 

After passing through Lille and failing to find a sheltered, non-exposed bivvy spot l continued to the next town, Tournai where there was a youth hostel with a bed for me, and a banquet hall for Galapagos, Darwin.  img_20161205_085825

Strava route

While I have left Calais, the need for volunteers and donations at this time has not.

If you are interested to learn how you can support the ongoing work the main organisations I have been working with are Help Refugees / L’Auberge , L’Auberge des MigrantsRefugee Community Kitchen, and Utopia 56,  

They would all very much value your help. Particularly at this time, RCK and Utopia 56  who are very much on the front line in providing support & food to those without homes on the streets of Calais.

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TCRno4s136: The Start, Apidura bags are go!

TCRno4s136: The Start, Apidura bags are go! 

 

The square was buzzing with cyclist clad Apidura bags; a mix of sizes, shapes, ages, both Apiduras and cyclists. As a newbie to the world of ultra-endurance cycling it was nice to see the diversity of people taking on this challenge. Already, from interactions on the journey to Geraardsbergen, the registration, briefing and final supper it was clear this was a random bunch of friendly people drawn together by a single combined factor, the desire to ride across Europe, alone as fast as possible. This was probably more reassuring for Mum, who had travelled with me from London, armed with homemade flapjack, most of M&S’s picnic section and a pretty extensive first aid kit. Post ride I was to find out that she had spent the hours after the send-off in a pub with a fellow TCR rider’s spouse and that accompanying me had indeed helped.

My hours preceding the race were spent with some slightly hectic last min prep, meeting other riders, a final feast, some more slightly more frantic last minute prep, rushed good byes and of course attempts to capture the event on film. I was lucky to spend the final supper with fellow Chevs rider Z, and the soon to be (relatively speaking) female race winner Emily Chapell. Emily and mum swapped flapjack for a book, so mums flapjack evidently is the fuel of champions.

At some time after dark the Mayor’s bell was rung, signalling the start of the race.  We set off across the square, past the flame bearing supporters; I concentrated on navigating the cobbles and crowds as a tactic to avoid crying at the start, it was all a bit overwhelming, in a good way, an emotional overload. The starting lap of the muur was sociable, easy pedalling, chatting to other riders a few of whom I had interacted with via twitter pre-race, twitter profiles are people too. The climb was a little hairy; I was glad to be at the back as it was narrow, bumpy, crowded and lined with flaming torches, with a few wobbles and the agility of a mountain ox I made it up; alive and smiling.

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Within minutes of the Muur descent, after pausing for the obligatory map check stop on the corner, I set off. For about 10 minutes I was in a bunch of cyclists, then my Garmin, prof Calculus, directed me to take a left turn and  I was solo, one girl and her bike taking on the world, well kind of.

 

 

 

 

Prisoners’ Education Trust: What is it, who needs it, why does it matter?

Prisoners’ Education Trust 

 What is it, who needs it, why does it matter?

Prisoners’ education trust (PET) is a charity I am supporting and hope to raise awareness of and funds for through my bicycling adventures. This is an introduction to the work they do and a reflection of my thoughts. Views are my own.

The What

Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET) is a charity that believes education has the power to enrich, change and develop people throughout their lives. Offering prisoners access to education improves their self-esteem and enables them to choose a more constructive way of life making it less likely they will reoffend.   It is a charity that I am aware of due to the personal contribution of my Dad, who was one of the original trustees; his involvement stemming from being an in English teacher in prisons in the 1980’s. It is a charity that helps individuals, their families and communities. It is also a charity whose aims have far reaching implications for our society.

The Why

The number of people in prison is rising at a staggering rate, 92% from 1993 to 2015, making Britain host to the highest imprisonment rate in Western Europe at 147 people per 100,0001.  Despite the growing prison population, there is a declining number of staff employed in public prisons. There has been an increase in prison deaths, violence, sexual abuse, fires and incidents requiring the emergency services.  Yet, there remains a staggering high rate of re-offending by those released from prison; 46% of people reconvicted within one year1. From the outside looking in, it seems like a broken system.

The Who

It is very easy to forget about those who we don’t come into contact with in our lives, easier still when the group of people are prisoners.  Many of us have been the victim of petty crime. Some of us have encountered more serious offences that may have had significant repercussions for us, our friends, and loved ones.  The goal of PET isn’t to excuse prisoners but to use education as a tool to prevent reoffending. It helps prisoners to learn and better themselves with a view to becoming positive contributors to society. It provides the opportunity to offer a second chance in life, often to people had a pretty rotten first chance to begin with.

 Many prisoners are victims of abuse as children, or growing up in care.

  • 1% of Children in England are in care, yet this group make up over half of children in secure training centres and 38% of children in young offenders institutions1.
  • 53 % of women and 27% of men prisoners report abuse as child1.

As a group, prisoners in Britain are also likely to have a limited education compared to the general population. A considerable amount of research associating education with crime rates with causal associations between the two dating back to the 1970’s2. It is reported that 42% of prisoners had been expelled or permanently excluded from school while 51% of people entering prisons were assessed as having the literacy skills expected of an 11 year old1.  People with no qualifications are four times more likely to be in prison than those with some qualifications3.

PET provides a number of case studies on their website, providing an insight into some of the people this trust has helped. I was particularly touched by the stories of Frank4, Ben5 and Karen6.

Looking Ahead

While a high proportion of people in our prisons may have been deprived of, or neglected to utilise, the opportunity to learn earlier in life, learning and education are things that can be revisited. Going back to the Brownlee report prisoners who had attended vocational training in prison are more likely to secure employment after release. Further, prisoners who were funded to study by PET were less likely to reoffend7. Thus, by providing education and training to prisoners, PET hopes to aid the rehabilitative process for prisoners, helping them to return with a positive influence to their society.

My ponderings

I attended school, participated in extra-curricular activities, and went to University.  For me, it was an easy journey, well metaphorically speaking. Literally, I sometimes made it difficult for myself, often racing the school bus on the way back from my paper round, throwing my bike and paper bag over the garden fence and running to make the bus stop on time. On those days that I did miss the bus my mum would drop me off at another bus stop on her way to work, normally sacrificing her breakfast in the process;  sorry mum. That was my education though, it was available, all of my friends went to school and when I slipped up, or started to loose motivation, my parents were there to prop me up and to ensure I didn’t fall through the gaps.  On top of that, I was lucky to go to good, safe schools, with above average results, access to sports facilities and use of Bunsen burners.

Would it have been so easy without that family support? Probably not.

Over the past months, since deciding I would like to fundraise for PET, I have come to better understand the work they do and how they go about it. I have also thought more about why it is important and had the opportunity to meet some individuals who had personally benefited from PET and hear their stories.  Listening to these conversations and reading case stories I have been struck by those accounts where, in line with what you would expect from a Hollywood tear jerker, the provision of education has lead directly or indirectly to a transformation of individuals committed to reform, a crime free life after prison to the benefit of themselves, friends and family.

 I have also found myself pondering the other edge of the sword of in relation to my own life, could it have been me? Could I have found myself in a position where through a moment of stupidity, lack of concentration, distraction or perhaps as a consequence of alcohol I found myself the cause of a crime and on the wrong side of the law? How would I cope?

Thank you for reading, please feel free to share.

Fundraising Page for PET

Some References/Further Reading

  1. Prison Reform Trust Bromley Briefing Summer 2016
  2. Ehrlich, I. (1975), ‘On the relation between education and crime’, Chapter 12, New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Book Co.
  3. Stephen Machin & Olivier Marie & Suncica Vujic, 2010.”The Crime Reducing Effect of Education,”CEP Discussion Papers dp0979, Centre for Economic Performance, LSE.
  4. http://www.prisonerseducation.org.uk/stories/frank-harris-ive-always-been-a-taker-but-now-im-a-giver-
  5. http://www.prisonerseducation.org.uk/stories/-bens-story-
  6. http://www.prisonerseducation.org.uk/stories/from-prisoner-to-case-worker-karens-story
  7. Ministry of Justice. (2013) Justice Data Lab Re‐offending Analysis: Prisoners Education Trust Open University Grants, London, UK. Retrieved February, 23, 2016, from https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/270089 /open-university-report.pdf

#Inthiskit

Sponsorship & Primal Europe, my thoughts

Today I finally got to meet the people behind the brand at Primal Europe. Lead by James Smith and wife Judith, this family run business based in Plymouth represent the European arm of Primal cycling apparel that was kind/mad enough to sponsor my Transcontinental Race, in the process becoming valued contributors and supporters. I arrived by bike, riding over Dartmoor from Dorset a route I would certainly recommend.

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Daisy, Top Dog at Primal Europe HQ

I was welcomed with a tea, a tour and an introduction to the Primal Europe crew, the majority of whom have grown within the company through local apprenticeship schemes, as well as office cockapoo, Daisy.  It was good to chat TCR, bikes, kit, Pokémon & politics in person, as well as see the work (and boxes of kit) behind the predominantly online merchandisers who, unsurprisingly, appear to be growing in popularity.

Sponsorship was something that a few people had mentioned I should try and get, especially those who had seen the state of my personal cycling apparel collection. One of the guys at the Chevaliers (London based bike club I ride with), had tried to start the trend #inthiskit, an endearing (I think) # surmising the contrast between my cycling style and attitude, to the many “all the gear and no idea” riders out there. I still didn’t really have that much of an idea, but I was probably going to push boundaries a bit further than the average lycra junkie touring the surrey hills even if I looked like I had got dressed in the dark with a selection of lost property/unwanted kit.

My relationship with Primal Europe began with an uncharacteristically bold tweet which was picked up by Managing Director, James, in the build up to the race. Prompted by a notification that Primal Europe were following me on Twitter, I looked at their website. I was instantly drawn to the vibrancy, the colours and the focus on an inclusive, adventurous spirit, spanning “weekend warriors” to “serious athletes” with the emphasis on fun. I mean this is why we ride, right? We enjoy it. Even better the kit was colourful, different, abstract and in stark contrast with the rules of the “Velominati” as Primal Europe offer a variety of non-black cycling shorts. High on life, excited by what was to come and feeling brave I threw caution to the wind and DM’d Primal Europe’s twitter account. I wasn’t really sure what to expect or what to ask for. I think I kept it rather vague to start with. James had heard of TCR, and it interested him. I think  this and a good degree of luck opened the door for me. We then had a bit of an email exchange, as James and the Primal Europe team were interested to know what chance I actually had of finishing the race and sent though a few questions. Me, being the mildly obsessive, occasional overachiever, probably spent a bit more time crafting a response than others may have done. This evidently was a good approach, giving James the answers he wanted, or at least were good enough to give me a chance. As a result, within 48 hours I had gone from sending a speculative twitter message to being a sponsored athlete (kind of). Boom!  In actual fact, the process of sitting down and going through the questions James raised was actually really helpful for me as race prep, to identify where I was at, where I needed to be and where my gaps were. It certainly gave a bit more focus to the final few weeks. It also formed my first blog for Primal Europe, along with a prologue on the race by the Primal Europe team which can also be seen on their Tumblr page.

After the written Q&As, actually possibly in the same email, he is pretty direct, James proposed some terms, which were in good alignment with what I had hoped for in my pedally day dream scenario, ultimately they would swap kit for pictures, a few blogs and social media content. It was agreed that during the run up to the race and the TCR itself I would do daily pictures/ videos for Primal Europe’s Instagram as well as a few Facebook “live chats”. While James sorted this and worked with me and the media team to get the first blog live, Judith and the warehouse team were quick off the mark to talk me through the kit they had in, advise me on what I might benefit from and send kit through to me. Within a few days I was wearing new primal kit- #inthiskit had a whole new meaning.

 

Those that followed me during the race may have seen my media was a little intermittent, not quite daily, I had certainly had expected to chat/video more than I did. From a practical perspective, media sharing was limited on some occasions by logistics, battery life was an issue, my power plan (dynamo/battery pack combo) didn’t quite work as planned. Secondly, this was ultimately a race, even at my pace, so on days where concentration and speed was low, stopping to take pictures was a distraction I tried to avoid. Thirdly, sometimes I was grumpy. Although Instagram mainly showed me smiling from some beautiful locations looking pretty happy with bikelife, some, unquantified amount of the time, I wasn’t, or simply lacked the emotional strength to broadcast. In these dark hours (often literally), I did take some pictures/videos yet luckily recognised that I was portraying a negative, teary, over dramatic grump, seeking sympathy (a few of these did make it out, ie the “dog kennel” video from Montenegro, CP4).  On my own, or in the company of those privileged enough to be close to me, I can be cranky and miserable, however I can pedal my way out of a self-pity sulk much better on my own than in company and I think that applies to the company of social media. I also didn’t want to be remembered for, or focus on the low moments, they were certainly part of the experience but in context, they weren’t that bad, really. That said, I did use the #stillsmiling progressively less. It is both good and surprising to hear how so many of those following had no idea how close I was riding to the scratch line, I don’t think I would have stepped over, but I was certainly close to falling at least. Perhaps I have begun to master the art of media manipulation.

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I thought i was smiling when i took this, evidently  not

 

 

As a result, I didn’t post as much as I’d planned for Primal Europe. I was lucky that James and the Primal Europe team were very laid back. James, previously in the armed forces, ex pro-rider and TCR fan probably had a better idea of what I was letting myself into than I did. He had expected things not to go to plan, something he shared after the event, obviously.  Throughout the TCR, it was clear that my race and wellbeing were always at the forefront of everything, rather than media goals which I really appreciated.  James, Judith and the rest of the Primal Europe team gave great support to the ride as did those following my social media posts through their platform. Sharing the experience definitely made it more fun. I don’t know that all sponsors would be so laid back, although I suppose if you are sponsoring something as unpredictable as the TCR I suppose you should expect things to not go to plan.  After meeting them all today I’m definitely keen to keep the relationship going, not only because I love the kit, but I like what they seem to be building, a local business, in a European market, part of a global organisation, focused around a love of adventure, the outdoors and cycling.  The Primal Europe kit and brand seem to empower its wearers to define their own style and be their own cool. I like that,  #inthiskit.

PS: Primal Europe are having a warehouse sale this weekend, at HQ in Plymouth check it out if your about.  Primal Europe Warehouse Clearance 13th -16th October

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Primal Europe prepping for their Warehouse Sale

PPS: Strava Link to my route, I’d recommend riding it, although perhaps starting from somewhere less random than Whitchurch Canonicorum, maybe Mortonhampstead or Exeter.

 

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Beautiful riding across dartmoor to Primal Europe HQ

 

 

Also, I have finally put together some pictures and some words on my TCR, which I have posted on Primal Europe’s Tumblr Blog Page #Happy trails, check it out.

 

The Story so Far- Tinder to TCR to The World…

I went on a Tinder date with a guy who accused me of being a Bike W@n*3r, in jest obviously. Turned out he was too, in fact more so than I was. Over our 2nd, I think, bottle he told me about this bike adventure he had done, across Europe. Sounded like a spiffing idea, in fact it sounded like the best thing ever. So over our next, 3rd?, bottle, I signed up.

On boxing day, at a garage somewhere outside Wantage, taking a break from the headwind, I saw the email from Mike and Anna, TCR  Leaders. It was good news.  Time to get prepared. #TCRno4.

I did some cycling and other stuff. Of note:

7 months and 3 days later the TCR started.

19 days and 22 hours later i finished the TCR.

12 days later I quit my London Job with a view to cycle the world.

to be continued…

Saddle Sore

Being unable to sleep due to pain in ones nether region, a sign of strength? Of bravery? More likely of stupidity and stubbornness.

Turns out this isn’t one of those training aches that doesn’t appear to subside if you ignore it and push through.

At least I’m not male and the bruising won’t risk my fertility.

90 miles of stand up pedalling was probably good climb training .

Cost of bike fitting next weekend now seems substantially better value for money.

I’m probably not being overly optimistic by thinking a new saddle will fix it. Unicorns could be real too.

On the plus side, while this  weeks rides ultimately cut short by inability to sit on my bike, 300 + mile week legs feeling fresh.

Will have to resort to running, gym and swimming this week to allow healing.

Ergh, that means the tube.

 

 

 

 

 

A is for Awkward

I don’t mean to be difficult, however, unfortunately i just am. It can make me seem a little awkward at times. Or as if i think the whole world revolves around me. I know it doesn’t, that would be in stark contrast to the gravitational qualities of the sun. Surely even BoB would understand? However, i get that sometimes, with my favourite people, i could be better at being less of a dick.

On a professional  level, or with those i don’t know that well i find being communicable something i am actually good at. I love communicating new information, teaching, presenting even selling (if it is something i believe in, luckily normally it is). The challenge for me is maintaining that sunny demeanor or rather, perhaps more honestly, believing in my own self worth – hence resulting in an inability to sell me.

i appreciate how that may sound rather self depreciative,  somewhat depressive, I am not. I have a perfectly good and rationale acceptance of my strengths in life, but also my weaknesses. However, one thing that i have come to recognise is that i am perhaps a little more self critical than the norm . Also, that i value time alone. That is not to say that i don’t get lonely, sometimes. Rather, that i would a) prefer to do something alone than not do it; b) rather do it alone than with someone that i find irritating* C)  do something pointless for the sake of companionship.

I think  for me, the really awkward thing about having a tendency for being difficult, is the temporality of it all. I can be both the awkward one, and yet also the least likely ” awkward” person in the group. Characteristics  that i personally seem unable to affect. Sometimes i feel so out of place in social gatherings, I may as well be stark naked with an obvious case of HSV-1. Alternatively, particularly with my nearest and dearest, i am a total grump. Yet on other occasions,  I am the first one to make friends and the person to make the greatest and wholly positive impact

That is why i like cycling, or exercise in general and why i am so excited about the TCR (this years challenge). It gives me an aim and an excuse to spend many happy, reflective,  hours in the saddle. For me, it takes the Awkard away. I like being able to personally push my boundaries, relative to my own abiity, judge myself accordingly and then de-brief over a beverage. I can also quite respectfully excuse myself for an entire day of any activity (or time spent “vegging out” as appears to be a current trend).

Following a ride or training session, i i find the silly barriers that surround social interaction dissipate, or if they don’t, then at least there is the option to talk about a common interest, exercise, training , doping, mechanical doping…. It also provides a security blanket, a conversation point for those non training related gatherings. For that inevitable moment when, following conversations of “gap years”, weddings,summer balls, fashion, pop culture,  work chat, that girl from school, expectant eyes leer, waiting for your comment. I find sport/exercise is normally a get out of jail free card, for which i am entirely grateful.

*perhaps ,my definition of irritating is both narrow an subjective excluding most people most of the time.