Now we’ve been to the end, let’s go back to the beginning of the journey and talk about what happened before we started.
Preparation for me was a three-phase process — mechanical, physical and mental.
We needed to prepare the bikes, this was easy for Phil, he had a crazy plan to finish this ride on a standard Chinese bike, I made small adjustments to the mechanics of mine, I bought special tyres supposedly lined with Kevlar, had new, better quality grips put onto the handlebars and tweaked the gears and brakes. I bought some spare cables, spare brake pads, two spare inner tubes and a spare tyre that I carried across China. We had a few tools between us, some tyre changing equipment as well as a big packet of repair patches, over 30 of them in different sizes and we used them all plus some. Mechanically, we felt we were quite ready and prepared. We were not, Phil’s Chinese market shopping bike had to go, but that’s another story…
As far as non-biking equipment was concerned we needed to purchase camping and cooking equipment, clothing that would be suitable for all the expected weather conditions and bags to carry everything. An email to Vaude, a German company with a store in Guangzhou turned out to be one of the best (of many) contributions Phil could have made to the trip. Vaude were extremely interested in what we were doing, they asked for further information and offered to provide pannier bags, backpacks, bike clothing and waterproof jackets for each of us. They asked for only one thing, we provide them with pictures from the journey — 200 pictures in all. They would also like us to visit them from time to time. It didn’t seem difficult and it wasn’t. On our first visit to them, we walked out of the store laden with 27,000 RMB (about $US6,000) value in equipment for our journey. Our luck and timing couldn’t have been better, Vaude were attempting to gain a foothold into two different markets, the Chinese market for their mountaineering equipment and the same time expand into the world cycling market, we were a perfect match for their marketing department. There is no doubt that this ride would have gone ahead, but without Vaude and their contribution, it would have been a very different ride.
Physically, my daily riding increased and I was capable of riding 100 kilometres a day and would do so often. However, my longest extended ride was still only 550 kilometres over four days. A story I wrote about that was called: “it’s a long way to ride for a pizza” and got quite extensively read on the internet. Phil, already a super fit marathon runner, was quite capable of extended periods of exercise, his stamina is amazing and his will to continue through the pain barrier is very strong. Physically, we felt we were both ready.
I had read that there are two ways to prepare for a ride like this: one is to train hard for the ride, the other is to train for the first week of the ride and then let the ride do the rest, working on the principle that after riding a hundred kilometres a day for a week or two would be enough preparation to make you ready for the rest of the ride. We didn’t subscribe to that and in retrospect that was a lucky thing, our first week of the ride had some of the steepest hills of the entire journey, they weren’t high or particularly long, or particularly high, at least not compared with some of the hills we went up in Gansu and Xinjiang, they were just very steep. Amazingly, there were the only places on the entire journey where one of us had to get off and walk, not once but twice! And it wasn’t Phil. We both knew we had the strength and we both believed that the first couple of weeks would build on that strength and improve our riding abilities, speeds and distances. We didn’t know that during the first 5 days, so early in the journey, we would experience such steep hills. Perhaps, this was the first evidence that we were a little naïve in our planning.
The third phase for me was the hardest. Mental preparation. How can you prepare yourself for what you don’t know and can’t expect? We knew our bodies were ready but getting up every morning for 55 or more days and riding another 100 kilometres, could we do that? We didn’t know and there was no way to find out without trying. We discussed the potential difficulties, the weather, the terrain, the distances we needed to cover between towns and even equipment problems we might have had. We pored over maps, studying contours and weather patterns with a view to being prepared to expect the unexpected.
I also had a little mental game I played with myself on a daily basis. My job had changed and I was riding to a different workplace, the shortest distance was 13 kilometres and there were several alternative routes I could take. My mental game was to take the hardest route, if it was windy, I would go by the most exposed route, if it was cold or raining, I would take the longest. I rarely took the 13k route but usually rode 40 or 50 kilometres in a day just getting to and from work. For Phil, his experience climbing mountains, crossing the Sahara and working for the UNHCR taking photographs in refugee camps had given him a better understanding of his own limitations, consequently, he had better mental preparation than me.
I asked Phil to give me some information about his preparation and he wrote the following about how he prepared mentally. I read it and thought it was quite important for anyone contemplating an adventure such as this, or anything else that might test the reader’s mental stamina. So, I didn’t edit anything out, I included it in full:
“Are you mentally prepared?”
“For me”, Phil started, “mental preparation is where the buck starts and stops. Your mind has more power to end your expedition than any mechanical or technical fault. Fixing your mind while out on the road is not an option. You cannot drop by the local therapist when the going gets tough and hope he will turn you around in 24 hours with a fresh outlook on life.
I have many examples from previous trips where I had everything technically, but mentally I was lacking. My long-distance trips in the Sahara tested the durability of my mental capacity in ways I never imagined possible.
My mental preparation starts by forming the route in my head, I then go into very deep periods of research taking in everything from the smallest town to the name of the local dialect in an area I might pass by. I stare at maps for hours, look at photos from each region, and try my hardest to become immersed in the places that I will soon be crossing. When I am on the road this becomes even more intense. I feel a very strange attachment to the areas in which I am travelling especially in remote areas. It is not uncommon for me to wander from my camp for hours at a time. I believe these rituals distract my mind from any physical or emotional strains that I may be feeling while on the road. For me that is how I cope!”
When I read what Phil had written, I can understand exactly what he meant. In hindsight, our differing mental approaches had similarities but his was based on his previous experiences. Never having done anything so difficult before I had a different approach before the ride, if I plan anther adventure, my approach would be more like Phil’s. I can also vouch for the fact that Phil doesn’t mind wandering off from the campsite for a little time on his own, I got incredibly worried one evening when he left the campsite 80 kilometres West of Hami in Xinjiang Province, effectively the middle of nowhere, to take some pictures, saying he would be gone about an hour. Three hours later, just as it was getting dark, he called my phone and asked me to describe what I could see — not an easy feat considering it was getting dark, we were in a desert landscape and had very few identifiable features. He does, however, have an innate sense of direction and 30 minutes after the call we were back in the tents examining some great pictures he had taken in the evening light. It’s also a very strong endorsement of the services offered by China Mobile that both our phones worked despite me being several hundred metres off the road, he being a few kilometres further away and both of us being at least 40 kilometres from anything bigger than a farmhouse.
There was one final preparation step we needed and that was to find out if we could actually ride together. Phil wasn’t a regular rider and I wasn’t used to riding with a partner. So, we arranged a ride that would take us through Guangzhou into Huadu, a northern suburb of that city, where we would spend a night before returning. Phil also decided that he wanted to challenge himself a little differently to me by riding his standard Chinese shoppers bike. The distance was a little short of 150k to get there and 139 back for me because I stopped in my in-law’s place for the night. Phil, poor guy, had to finish the last few kilometres alone, this distance was really going to test his ability to complete a longer journey on a bike designed to carry little old ladies to the market place and home again with their chicken dinner. It was also a test for us in terms of navigational challenges as Huadu is north of Guangzhou and Zhongshan, our starting point is about 65 kilometres south of that city. It meant we would have a day experiencing the same conditions as the first day of the big bike ride and the most difficult part of that journey. No other city would be as complicated or as big. Our challenge would be to navigate, through the southern suburbs, skirt past the city centre and leave into the northern suburbs. Guangzhou is a “megatropolis” with approximately 20 million people and a very high percentage of them drive cars badly. This should have been a real challenge for two cyclists who are unfamiliar with the city but one thing I had learned a few months before when I rode to Guangzhou alone, was that more important than any map was to know which direction you were headed. I invested 15 RMB in a very cheap compass and we were able to find our way through simply by heading north and when we couldn’t head north because the road went west, all the had to do was ensure we headed back east later before resuming north.
Despite the anticipated challenges, we had no serious problems with this ride, it was a normal training run for me and Phil had ridden this distance before but not for many years. He easily made the ride with only one puncture to mar the experience. No other issues arose except that we found Phil’s bike needed some TLC when it came to changing a tyre. Through this minor mishap though, we learnt that his “granny bike” wouldn’t be suitable for the possibility that we would be getting many punctures in the coming months.
His traditional Chinese bike had no quick release on the wheel and for the operation we needed several different tools, a screwdriver to take off the brake housing, a different screwdriver to release the brake cable, two different sized spanners to release the nuts then the tyre levers, of course and the process of changing the tube was so complex with a valve that needed to be disassembled before it could be removed from the wheel. It was turning out to be a real time waster. The experience was a good exercise in the one thing that would become vitally important. We needed to be able to change a tyre quickly, efficiently and get back on the road with the least amount of inconvenience. Phil’s standard Chinese shopper’s bike wasn’t going to cope with the road conditions and wasn’t going to be quick or efficient. Our biggest lesson that day was to get a different bike for Phil. His crazy plan to ride this bike to Urumqi wasn’t going to work, the tyres were just not up to the strain. The wheels weren’t going to be strong enough and the time taken to change tyres and fix punctures was going to be too long. A change was required. Phil, being the kind of guy he is didn’t make that change until the last moment, literally day one of our trip at 11 am, not the day before or the week before but on the day we started and even then, only after experiencing a puncture on the way to the starting point the day before, he finally got his new bike.
It was only later that we realised that the problem with punctures wasn’t Phil’s problem. It was going to become mine in a big way, despite the purchase of what I thought would be virtually impregnable Kevlar lined tyres. A very quick lesson learnt here. Don’t always trust the products you buy from internet shopping sites. If my Kevlar tyres were made from the same material that make bullet proof vests, I think there would be a lot of policemen in very serious trouble.