Road to Africa

Matthew got to know Middleport Pottery in Stoke-on-Trent very well as a competitor and ultimately the winner in the BBC’s 2015 Great Pottery Throwdown.  As well as being a very skilled potter, he’s also got form as a cyclist…

Matthew at work - photo courtesy B.P.M.Harris

Matthew at work - photo courtesy B.P.M.Harris

My name is Matthew and on the 10th of July 2015, after little planning and hardly any organisation, I began the solo cycle from Orkney to Africa. I first bought a bike for the same reason every other post-graduate in their early twenties does: to go on epic pub crawls with their mates in the summer - we’ve still not got round to this. It was beautiful: a kind of rusty beige, but faded green in places where the sun hadn’t quite got to. Costing me the princely sum of two pints, she only needed new tyres, tubes, brakes, chain, and everything else that moved. She was a Peugeot from the late 70s that had belonged to many previous pub crawlers. I felt as though I was part of the new generation, I was sure the adventures we would have together would be out of this world.

As the year went on, I soon decided the Peugeot desperately wanted to be turned into a single-speed or fixie. So, after stripping the entire frame, buying entirely new parts for everything and even a new paint job (“Rolls Royce Silver”), she was back on the road! The decision to transform my iron steed was mainly based on living in Preston, where it is flat and, obviously, I wanted to look cool because that was what all the hipsters rode.

It was that summer, on a campsite near Valencia, that I met Anthony. The second I saw him, I knew he was British and I knew he’d cycled the whole way. He had begun at the famous John O’Groats and was ending in Gibraltar. That evening we sat in the bar discussing, in detail, every part of his adventure to date. Anthony explained that he had just finished college and in September he was starting at Land Rover Jaguar: he would never again have that length of time to do what he wanted. I immediately agreed with this. I don’t know how long I will be in education. Therefore, I am very fortunate to have long summers and should make the most of them. This might have been the moment I decided to cycle to Africa.

On my return from Spain, I went straight to the local bike shop and spent rather a lot more than I had spent on my first bike. I was moving to the Dales, so a fixie wouldn’t be the most appropriate of bikes, especially not for Buttertubs, one of the roads the tour used. I soon felt like a pro on my shiny carbon push bike. I would be out training every day, wind, rain sleet - and this was October. The more I cycled, the more I became addicted to it. I was feeling stronger every day. Quicker, with every ride.

I understood why people loved it. It was just me on my own, no worries or concerns. I had the opportunity to think about things which mattered to me. As an artist it is very important to reflect on one’s thoughts which can´t always be the easiest thing. Cycling had just given me the answer of how to do this. With the winter out of the way, I became conscious that the following summer I would be cycling to Africa. I started stepping up the miles and even thought about what I was eating. Occasionally, at work, whilst opening emails, I’d have a quick glance at a map of France or Spain, this was the planning stage.

In the spring of that year, I was lucky enough to be introduced to nine amazing people and had the chance to participate in what was probably going to be the opportunity of a lifetime. Filming “The Great Pottery Throw Down” didn’t come without its consequences though. With a huge cutback to my cycling and an increased diet, of which was just chocolate and crisps, training was not going well. Also, I think the psychological effect of having to cycle to Africa was playing with my mind slightly.

However, with about four weeks to go, filming was done. I treated myself to some panniers, a lightweight tent, sleeping bag and lots of really cool gadgets I was sure I would need for my trip through Europe. I told my parents of my plan, or lack of one, asked a friend to drive me up to John O’Groats and that was it.

I hadn’t intended Orkney to be the start point however, after the eight hour drive up I thought it would be a kind of thank you to my friend if we did a bit of touring around. So we got the ferry over, cycled, and I cooked us a lovely tea. This was more for me really, as I would only have hot food once on my trip. This was to save weight on carrying a stove.

Orkney was gorgeous. Because it was summer it didn't really go dark in the evening, it just stayed that lovely dusk kind of grey with the orange harbour lights shimmering across the water. We both rose at 5am to get the first ferry back to the mainland, I wish I could say I had a restful night but that would be a lie. There was just so much to think about!

We were back to John O’Groats in good time and after the obligatory photo by the legendary signpost I was off. That first mile was the hardest mile of my life. I realised I’d never ridden a bike with panniers before, so balancing was a bit different. By the time I worked out how to ride this contraption, I was out of the car park and up the hill, at which point I had a quiet little cry to myself. Just the first of a few short emotional breakdowns, which are to be expected when doing stupid things such as this.

After I pulled myself together, I felt great. I was on my own, doing exactly what I had been thinking about for the previous year. What’s more, it didn’t feel difficult, it was almost as if my training was paying off. My cheery, light-hearted mood was soon damped with rain. As the hills became bigger and the rain heavier, I grew weaker. I had told myself to take regular breaks and not to push hard on the pedals. It seemed to be working but let’s be honest: cycling any distance with about 20kgs on the back was going to be tiring.

Occasionally I would pass another tourer going the other way up the A9, just about to finish the end to end. We’d smile and wave, then exchange that look of mutual respect. I would grow to love that cheeky glance, it was a kind of high five mixed in with a pep talk, like we were in a special club. I would then think if only they knew I wasn’t going to stop till Africa. Thinking about it, it’s amazing how much can be communicated through eye contact and a smile.

I did 108 miles that first day and it felt like it! The first few days are always going to be the worst, every touring blog I’d ever read told me that. I’m not sure if it’s what I was expecting though, it seemed very difficult and there didn’t seem to be any immediate rewards.

With day one under my belt, I woke up feeling a lot better than I had imagined. Usually, the second day can be the worst, as you feel the pain from the first but you need to carry on, as your body adapts to this new routine. However, resting was not an option. With the weather almost as wet as the day before, I hastily stuffed everything into the panniers and cracked on. The long climb out of Inverness was not the easiest of climbs, it dragged on for a long time and confused me into thinking maybe my fitness was dropping. My spirits quickly perked up as I passed a sign saying I was at Slochd Summit, 1328ft. You know if there’s a sign then you must be pretty high.

Long descents are fun! They’re even more fun when you have the road to yourself. I soon got knocked back to reality with a puncture. I had hoped to last a bit longer than two days but these things happen. I was quite happy to repair it because I thought I need to get used to being independent, problem solving, fixing things that break and all that. I was less happy to receive my second puncture no more than 15 minutes after my first. Oh well, there was nothing I could do but repair it again and hope for the best.

I was riding a lot more confidently now I had discovered the pace that worked well for me. Not putting in any more power than was necessary and stopping regularly, either to eat or to look at the route. This worked well, at the end of the day, I was in no rush. I would later on begin to understand this more and more. You do things when you want and how you want, because, when you’re on the road, it’s just you that matters.

With day two complete in good time, there was chance to get a few beers and relax in the sun by my tent. The following day was a real test of my navigational skills: after Perth it was a case of zig-zagging my way through A and B roads, this was a sign of what was to come. My trip through Edinburgh was made considerably easier though as a beautiful medical student guided me along the cycle ways into the centre. I must have seemed incredibly confused and lost.

When I crossed the border to England, I felt a great sense of achievement. My first country done! All in all it wasn’t too bad, all I had to do now was repeat that another seven times. What did make me feel better though wasn’t the man playing bagpipes, but as I entered England, as if by magic, the rain stopped. From here on, the weather would be perfect.

I found it incredibly easy to ride through the north. The roads were quiet and they all seemed to go to where I wanted them to. I got to York for lunch on day five and I’m really glad my route took me straight through the centre. I knew York was a city with great culture, however, this was my first visit. It was wonderful to discover new and interesting places even in my own country.

The next day was my first test of problem-solving. Peterborough at rush hour and my chain snapped. How does a chain snap after 600 miles? I actually had every bike tool but a chain splitter. Thankfully, it wasn’t quite the end of the working day and I managed to google a local bike shop. After explaining what I was doing they even drove out to take me back to their workshop. Such amazing people!

With my chain fixed and a printed out map of the country roads, steering me clear of the A14, I was on my way. That night, I was to camp just outside of Cambridge. Cycling through the centre, I had never seen a place so populated with bikes. For the first time, I felt like a tourist, stopping to take photos and marvel at centuries old, architectural masterpieces.

I usually have some kind of guilt about being a tourist. I don't like the fondling with maps and capturing every moment with my phone to then upload to social media, but this was the first time I wanted to explore the entire city. Sadly, I was on a time limit to get the ferry.

It was then on day seven I had the worst pain from cycling I’d ever come across. Approaching London, my knees began to ache badly, similar to what I had felt before on long rides. After London, the pain was close to unbearable. So much so that I took it in turns pedaling with different legs. Having read books since, I have learnt that this was probably tendinitis. Something that is common in endurance events. I told myself if tomorrow was the same, I would need a rest day and have to slow down the pace. The pain was almost over, as I rolled along the last five miles of England to my Dover campsite. Of course such an accomplishment could not be completed without a puncture.

Having crossed the English Channel, or “La Manche," I was now in Calais, granted, not the best introduction to France, but by no means as bad as the media leads us to believe. Because I had no phone service abroad, I was solely reliant on a map I had downloaded. Some might say bad planning on my behalf. This meant no googling the nearest bike shop, or campsite and no ringing for help if things went wrong. I was now by myself.

This was the start of my real adventure. So, how better to start a real adventure than with a puncture on the main road through Calais? I rather enjoyed that first day of France, part of my family are French so I feel quite at home, cycling through the little villages. Somehow there is a sense that life moves at a different pace abroad. That evening I found a slightly strange campsite with what you might call ‘traditional’ French toilets. I listened to the rain gently fall onto my tent at night and it soothed me to sleep. I woke the next morning excited to get on the road. I had planned to stop at my cousin’s house near Paris and I couldn’t wait.

By now I felt I was a pretty experienced tourer. My knees had broken through that pain barrier, I knew my pace, my cadence, when to eat, when to drink and importantly when to rest. I didn’t have to consciously think about that stuff every second, now spend my time pondering the important things and reflecting on life.

Once again, standing in the way of reflection time were punctures. That day I used the last of my repair patches, I now had none. I could not get another puncture. It was also a Sunday, this meant no bike shops.

After much careful cycling I soon arrived at the old home of Claud Monet, the famous French impressionist. Just five more kilometres and I would be at Katya’s house. I have extremely fond memories of Les Metz Village. I spent most of my childhood holidays there, playing in a stream made famous by one of Monet’s paintings.

I arrived, expecting some sort of welcome banner; they might have invited friends to congratulate me. Neither of this was true, in fact, they weren’t even home. Eventually both cousin and boyfriend returned. Katya cooked me a large variety of carbs and Jean-Charles supplied me with beer. I was in heaven. I even had an actual bed to sleep in! I think, by this point it’s fair to say I deserved a lie-in. 

However, it wasn’t difficult to find motivation to get up and organise myself, after all, I was about to hit 1000 miles. Before leaving I made sure to test every single type of chocolate and biscuity form of treat my cousin stocked, and as a primary school teacher, there were ample amounts. Also, of course, I could not pass the opportunity of making myself a coffee, the first one since John O’Groats. I really love coffee; therefore, it had been a hard week to function without.

The absolute priority for that day was to find a bike shop. I tried many shops that morning and eventually came to the conclusion that all bike shops close on a Monday, I presume so the owner can go cycling. Thankfully, by chance a group of cyclers flew past me, managing to talk to one of them I explained my problem and I was soon given an inner tube, almost as though I needn’t have asked. He was probably a bike shop owner.

With a colossal weight lifted from my shoulders I continued along the perfectly straight roads which cut their way through the cereal fields of France. I found these relaxing as I didn't have to think about steering, just admire what was around me. As I approached 990 miles I began to look for a bar to reward myself. It was easy to see I was in the middle of nowhere and this was not going to be an option. Fate, on the other hands, had other plans. I was instead to spend my 999.8th mile – yes, you guessed it - repairing a puncture.

As I worked my way further south, things actually couldn’t get much easier. I’d managed to find a rather quiet A road which would take me about 400 miles without having to put much thought into navigation; an absolute godsend after the South of England. I found a bike shop which resembled Aladdin’s cave, so stocked up on inner tubes.

The weather by this point was perfect! A warm breeze and clear blue sky. Also I stopped worrying about a destination for the evenings as almost every town I passed had at least one campsite, so I could just cycle until the day was up and then just look for camping signs. This rather spontaneous way of touring led me to find one of the best sites I’ve ever stayed at. My tent was pitched next to a lake that had a sandy beach, with a bar on it, absolutely brilliant night. 

The next day I continued with ease down through Bergerac. When I originally thought about the route through France, I had a rather romantic image in my head of myself, sitting outside a chateau, enjoying red wine amongst the vineyards, with a good selection of cheese in front of me. I might also have been wearing a beret. This image did not happen. Instead, I merely glanced towards the miles and miles of vines as I made my way through wine country and towards the Pyrenees.

This was the day I had been rather anxious about for quite some time. In fact, ever since I found out the Tour de France was to take the same route over the Pyrenees. I therefore hypothesised that it was not going to be an easy day. It didn’t start well either, as I noticed that I had been robbed during the night by some French youths. Fair enough, it was only a power bank, but when you need it to charge a phone to access maps of Spain, it kind of becomes a lifeline. Fortunately, this issue was soon resolved by some early morning retail therapy.

As I pedalled on towards Spain the mountains began to grow around me, I was in awe as this was by far the most beautiful scenery I had witnessed on the trip. I stopped before the serious climbing, began to top up on carbs, sugar and liquids. Got myself psyched up and hit the road! I was extremely careful to pace myself when the road became steeper. I had regular breaks, which was not difficult at all, as this gave me a chance to admire the view. You know you’re on a proper climb, when there is a sign every kilometre telling you what altitude you are, the gradient of the climb and how far from the top you are. These are great for reminding you of how little progress you’re making, as well as how much more pain you are about to endure. I say that, and it’s true: it was a demanding day, but there isn’t one second of that ride I didn’t enjoy. As I weaved my way closer to the top my surroundings became breath-taking. Not only could I see for miles all around, the only noise I heard was that of the cows and their huge steel bells. These would echo though the mountains creating some incredible sounds. The thing I loved the most though, had to be the hairpin corners of the road, this was my first introduction to real cycling roads and I couldn’t get enough of them. A famous quote, “not everyone can play on the same pitch as their favourite footballer but you can ride on the same roads as your favourite cyclists.” I was astonished to have that tiny insight into what the peloton go through on a tour. Agreed, at a completely different level, however, an experience to say the least. Having reached Arétte-Pierre-Saint-Martin, I thought I had earned myself an espresso at the ski station and savoured my last few moments on French soil before the final push over the top into Espagna. 

The contrast between two days of cycling was incredible, I had only gone over a few mountains but suddenly the temperature shot up and the landscape became very barren. Everywhere I looked was this dusty, ochre coloured, dirt with the occasional twiggy bush. Once again, navigating was pretty easy. There’s not much in the middle of Spain, so there isn't much reason to have a lot of roads. 

There are bad points to this though. Firstly, if you do take a wrong turn, you’re probably about 20km in the other direction before you realise. Secondly, you learn to get good at stocking up on water because once you leave a village that’s it for another hour or two. Unless you find a graveyard, they always have taps.

After two days of cycling through the northern part of Spain I had my first wild camp. As per usual, I reached about 80 miles and started looking on the map for towns in the next 20 miles. Found one, got there, no campsite. This was a very exciting moment for me but also a scary and quite anxious one, too.

I wanted to wild camp on my trip because that was a tick box to an adventure. So, I decided simply to cycle till sunset and pitch up. This way I’d get extra miles in and no one would see my tent when I set up camp. By pure chance (and if you’ve been to central Spain, you’d understand) I reached a lovely forest and home for that night. I walked for 15 minutes down a sandy, over-grown, dirt track to make sure I was well out of the way of anyone. Then a car drove past, I put this down to pure chance. With a slight bit of adrenalin I cleared some space amongst some pine trees for my tent. It’s strange isn’t it, you feel safest paying to camp five metres from someone you’ve never met before. However, when you’re 20 miles from the nearest town it suddenly becomes quite eerie.

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After a nutritious meal of nuts, beer and tuna, I went straight to bed. Lying awake with my senses turned up to max, I heard the rustling outside my tent. At first I tried to ignore it telling myself it’s just my imagination and it’s probably just a rabbit. I knew it wasn’t though; far too big. Gently unzipping my door, I plucked up the courage to glance out from my tent. I then saw five or more deer, no more than 30ft away. They didn’t startle one bit and seemed just as interested in me as I was in them. I watched them for a short while as well as looking up to one of the brightest starry skies I’ve ever seen.

Something I have learnt from following cyclists on Twitter is that every athlete has their ‘worst day’. Mine happened on day 21, it was about 42 degrees, and it pushed me to my limit both mentally and physically. The day before hadn’t ended well as my face was blistered, my lips had split badly, and I had to pay £20 for a campsite.

So, after not sleeping because of the heat, I set off into the closest thing to a desert I had ever seen. It was actually quite beautiful. There was nothing around but the horizon and a straight road, not even any traffic. Everything went well until lunch when things started to heat up. The tortilla I bought had fermented and exploded in my pannier bag, which was now an oven. This wasn’t a huge problem though, just a mess.

Following my siesta under the olive trees, I continued. It was now over 40 degrees and I was averaging more than a litre of water an hour, locals clearly realised I was insane as people driving past would wind down windows and offer water. There was no shade at this point and my phone, with all my maps and strava, had decided to give up. The only way I could cool it down was to hold it under a road sign, the only shade in sight. Unbelievably, this worked! However, as I was drinking more water than I could carry, and with few services it wasn’t long until I became hugely dehydrated. I laugh at the thought of it now but I remember being angry at anyone for not planting a tree for shade. I just couldn’t understand why there was no shade anywhere. It was like a really hard maths problem. I had to stop and have a little paddy by the side of the road. I was in a lot of pain. Emotional breakdown over, I forced myself onwards and it didn’t take too long to find supplies. 

Unfortunately, even though I bought enough supplies, I clearly hadn’t learnt. This would be the last shop that day. As the mountains started the roads became incredibly difficult. There was plenty of writing on the roads, a good sign they are used for the Vuelta (Spanish Tour de France), not what you want to see when you are unprepared. Again, finishing the last of my water I also ate the final piece of chocolate. I think I cried a little when I found a tap, it’s like someone had placed it there just for me and I couldn’t care less if it was drinkable or not. That night, I found a lovely campsite and pitched up next to a Belgian cyclist, also cycling across Spain but the opposite way to me. We both sat in a bar that night sharing stories of our tour and of course showing off each other’s tan lines (mine won).

My final day of cycling was incredible. Winding my way down through the mountain roads, watching Gibraltar on the horizon growing larger. I’m not sure if I did spend the entire 60 miles descending but that’s what it felt like. I soon arrived at the British border, which was a bit of an anti-climax. 

I had expected police asking me where I had cycled from, and then telling their mates and everyone being amazed. Instead I cycled through customs, held my passport up to someone that didn’t seem to care, and carried on across the runway (to get to Gib you need to cross the runway).

I choose to treat myself to a hostel that night, having earned it, then went to explore. I made a stop at Morrison’s and satisfied some cravings, steak and ale pie obviously and of course bought some shower gel as I had run out and didn’t smell great. The next morning I rose early to get the ferry to Africa, just a short ride along the cost, buy a ticket, job done. Not that easy. If you’ve wondered what it’s like cycling on a motorway for 10 miles, take it from me: absolutely terrifying!

Arriving at the terminal wasn’t much better either. I’ve never experienced so much chaos. The Arabs have a saying: “the louder you shout the more you get”. Every single person in that building seemed to agree with this. There is so much I could say about the six stressful hours I spent in that building, however, I hope this sums it up; I bought a ticket for what turned out to be freight, I ended up (eventually) as a foot passenger on a different company’s ferry, (apparently you get the first one you see), I think I then got a visa, then I disembarked as a vehicle because they didn’t quite know what to make of my bike. To this day I am still baffled as to how I got across that sea.

If anyone ever wants to know what it feels like to be a professional cyclist: ride a bike in Morocco. For the 60km from the port to Tangier the roads were full of people clapping, cheering and occasionally holding out their hands for high-fives. It’s like everyone knew that I had just cycled for more than 3 weeks solid to get there. I think the reality is they’re just not used to seeing cyclists and probably thought I was crazy. Upon arriving at my hostel in the old city walls, I was greeted by travelers from across the world. This was exactly what I had imagined, a huge group of adventurists, each with their own unique story, tales of where they had been and advice on what to do. It was incredible to meet people so like-minded, you instantly became friends. That evening we sat on top of the hostel roof, right in the centre of the medina. We had beer, a BBQ and a guitar. I feel as though we couldn’t be more of stereotypical travelers if we tried - but I loved it!

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