Day 24: Wawanesa to (almost) Winnipeg (142km)
Here I am sitting cross-legged by the side of the road. As I look up I could be just a few miles from home. I know those fields of rape seed. A horizontal band of ripe yellow under drifting cumulus clouds. But scanning the level horizon I cannot see a hill. No Wittenham Clumps. No Didcot power station. No signpost to Henley or Reading. In that momentary pause between sight and recognition my optimism peaks and falls with a slump of the shoulders. I am not in Oxfordshire. I am in pain.
Yesterday I learnt how to keep going – today I learnt to stop.
I woke up at 6am this morning. Given I’ve just crossed a time zone it felt like 5am and the morning sun hadn’t yet climbed over the line of trees on the far shore of the river. The mosquitoes, however, were awake and out in force, biting any patch of skin that wasn’t covered by at least 3 layers of deet and clothing. I was on the road by 8am with a daunting 200km ride to Winnipeg ahead of me. My cellphone was completely out of signal and I felt quite isolated as I plodded alone along the highway.
There is no hard shoulder on highway 2. The edge of the road just deteriorates into puncture-inducing gravel. I find I can’t relax while cycling as I always have to keep my eye out for traffic. The truck dodging that I commented upon in yesterday’s blog post is like a fatal video game of judgement. But every time an oncoming truck passes me the air current it creates overwhelms me like a crashing wave. It reminds me of swimming in the surf: a wave approaches, you can see it coming and count down. You gasp for breath, duck your head and grip tightly onto the security of your handlebars. Sometimes it’s a relief that the wave doesn’t crash on you but glides past. Sometimes the wave tears at your body and shoots a jet of grit at your skin. It has almost torn the helmet from my head.
The only benefit of these trucks is that, like the sand on a surf beach, the grit that is blasted onto my exposed skin becomes stuck on my sweaty sun-creamed limbs. When I next rub in some more sun cream the effect is very exfoliating. Who knew that the highway could provide its own beauty regime. I also am beginning to develop a Heading East tan. As I continuously pedal east on the highway, my right side is exposed to the southern sun. So while my left side glows a pleasant peachy-brown, my right side is increasingly beetroot.
All morning I fought against the heating sun and the blasting waves of trucks. I managed to keep up a decent speed by consuming an enormous quantity of energy bars, water and fruit. But my legs were beginning to weaken. My knee pain was gradually getting worse. I took painkillers. But my knee wanted rest. I stopped for lunch after 110km. It was still a long, long way to Winnipeg.
After lunch I turned north into a brutal headwind. My speed dropped to less than 16km per hour. At this rate I wouldn’t get to Winnipeg before nightfall. A truck whipped past me and the speed of its wind turbulence swept me off the highway into the gravel. I lay Monty down carefully on the gravel shoulder. I pulled out my emergency ice pack and stuck it on my right knee. I cut up an orange, slurped every bit of its juicy goodness and waited for meaning to come back to me. I put some music on my ipad. And waited. The wind did not abate. The trucks streamed by. And still meaning did not come. And the pain in my knee only seemed to feel worse.
I looked down. I forgot myself. I looked up and saw that horizontal band of ripe yellow under drifting cumulus clouds. I felt at home. But in that momentary pause between sight and recognition my optimism peaked and fell. I am not in Oxfordshire. I am in the middle of sodding nowhere with an inflamed knee.
Today has made me question why I am doing this. I have exchanged the comfort of my own bed for a thin thermarest. Instead of soaking in a hot bath, I have swam in a glacier-fed lake. Instead of contentedly ignoring the cool air conditioning in my car I have learnt that mosquitoes can bite through bike shorts. Instead of reading books and browsing BBC news I have begun to read the sky. I swapped the office for the great outdoors. I swapped security for the unknown. I swapped contentment for the oscillating misery and euphoria of life on the road. Why? I still don’t know.
Could I have pushed myself another 63km? Probably yes. But I still have another 5,000km to cycle this summer. I feel a bit crushed to have had to call for a lift to Winnipeg. I had only done 142km of what was supposed to be the great 200km+ ride. The pain in my knee is sharp and stabbing. The tiredness of my body is slow and dull. In the last 6 days I have cycled over 800km. And more than I want to push myself to the limits – I just want to continue.
I hope that my lesson for today will prove to be that knowing when to stop is the same as learning how to keep going.