Tour de Puffin
19th August, 2020 in Exercise
Distance - 1000km (to the nose – I had to cycle twice around a park near my house to ensure the nice rounded number to appease my slight OCD)
Total Elevation - 7953m (90% of Mt. Everest).
Time spent on bicycle – 60 hours (avg 5.45 hours daily)
Week 1 - Aberdeen | Dundee | Edinburgh | Glasgow | Dumfries | Appleby | Grassington
Week 2 - Leeds | Manchester | Birmingham | Cardiff | Bristol | Reading | London
Bike Weight – 15kg + luggage + hairy legs
Allow me to begin this by saying explicitly that I am not a ‘cyclist’. Sure I enjoy cycling, the sense of freedom & the feeling of immense achievement having arrived at a faraway destination just by using pure leg power but I’ll never shave my legs and I don’t wear Lycra and I had no idea what SPDs were or Chamois cream before this ride... I like a clunky and heavy journey, having the time to take in awe-inspiring scenery and stopping regularly to talk to cows a.k.a check the weather forecast.
The reason I took on this adventure was because I was tasked with curating my first cocktail competition for Reyka Vodka as Brand Ambassador and I wanted to do something on a national scale which related to the Icelandic sense of adventure whilst also minimising my carbon footprint which comes with the territory of being a travelling ambassador. Reyka’s production is one of a resourceful use of geothermal energy and minimal impact to the immediate environment and this had to be mirrored in the comp. Bartenders across the UK were asked to come up with drinks that used tomatoes (grown in Iceland using geothermal & hydroelectric energies) & were inspired by Iceland in some way. I’d also been researching a lot about the ‘Biophillia Hypothesis’ and how we evolved in nature yet have never been farther from it. I wanted to test the theory by leaving behind as much of the digital noise of my regular day to day happenings as possible and seeing if the right side of my brain, the creative lobe was allowed to come to the fore. This is something I plan to bring to a wider audience very soon – how nature & adventure can help combat symptoms of burnout, lack of sleep & too much of the good stuff! I call it ‘Adventurivity’ because I have a penchant of joining up words (adventure + creativity) like the Icelandic practise of linguistic purism.
I decided to cycle between all the heats which were to start in Aberdeen on the 12th August and finish in London on the 28th. I gave myself two weeks to complete the journey which (I thought) seemed realistic enough after seeking advice from real-life cyclists like Mark Thomson & Tim Etherington-Judge.
I teamed up with actual adventurer Jamie sparks. He was to be the lead judge for the competition heats. He’s a 5 x world record holder for doing adventurous things having rowed across the Atlantic & Indian Ocean in the same year. We are now tight chabuddies but when I first met Jamie, I wasn’t sure how spending 2 weeks with a proper adventure dude would pan out. I almost felt like a fraud in his presence. On our first meeting he looked me up and down and said ‘let’s put a wager on this, I bet you fail and ask me to come and pick you up’ – ‘you don’t even shave your legs!’… Jamie was to be following me between the cities on his motorbike and I was required by our legal team to check in with him every hour during my trips to say things like ‘I’m alive’. If I got into trouble, he was to find me and pick me up on his beast motor bike to continue the journey. When we asked him if he’d like to cycle with me he said he wasn’t fit enough. I still don’t know if this was a joke but it made me and the Reyka Brand Manager Jane (my ‘work mum’) wonder how the hell I’d complete the journey if an actual adventure-athlete dude couldn’t do it…
Throughout the journey I would occasionally turn to Jamie for advice and he’d always have encouraging things to say like – ‘don’t worry, you’ll have a massive emotional crash soon enough’…. Or my favourite - ‘it’s not an adventure until something goes wrong – until then you’re just executing a plan’. The first sentiment wasn’t so helpful but the latter definitely so. It’s within an adventure that you really test your resolve, build character and overcome massive mental challenges. Cycling for 6-8 hours each day for 2 weeks solid was as much mentally challenging as physically. I found myself reverting to a more imaginative younger self, spending hours imagining I was playing Quidditch or having conversations with the google maps lady…
So the journey! I had trained for the expedition. Nowhere near enough but it was hard to find the time (lazy) and also I found it boringly repetitive. I can’t just cycle round a track or on a stationary whatsit machine. I need scenery to gaze upon, the smells of being outdoors (mainly manure, pond & river funk & freshly trimmed grass or the occasional waft of Geosmin as rain approaches) and the sounds of birdsong, wind in the trees & flowing water.
Every day of the expedition was the same yet starkly different. It was the same in terms of the incessant faffing. 6am starts to carb up, shloop copious amounts of chamois cream on my unspeakables, scrutinize the routes & search for landmarks to break up the journey, charge all my navigation GPS wotsits & make sure my clothes were ready and dry from washing them the night before..
What surprised me most was being able to muster the energy to host the 10 x competition heats in the chosen cities. A 3 hour competition after a gruelling 7 hour cycle is no mean feat but the bartenders enthusiasm was infectious and the atmosphere always calm and often hilarious. The support I received from them all most definitely spurred me on through the more difficult times. Legends like Sarah Berardi of Draffens Dundee sharing her famous pickle juice with me for its restorative powers & electrolytes.
The landscapes & terrain I cycled through were immense and I miss them & the variety most of all. Rough cycle tracks past weather beaten coastlines to peaceful but edgy canal sides, dark woodland paths, urban parklands through tracks as thin as my handlebars dodging nettles & thorny bramble bushes, cobbled streets through picturesque villages, moorlands, sea-grass lined seaside paths & through sweeping fields of wheat & barley. I raced (snail pace) past massive castle ruins, across viaducts, aqueducts, one million cows & where they make Wensleydale cheese. Helpful snarling farm dogs snapped at my heels and gave me the strength to tackle some of the larger hills across Fife & the Lake District. The climbs during the undulating Yorkshire Dales will always be with me; cycling up into descending clouds with zero phone signal and terrible visibility with looming ghostly silhouettes of cows and broken stone walls.
Things did go wrong of course; it was an adventure after all. Between Glasgow & Leeds I sent my wallet back to London in a bag I had asked Jamie to carry for me. I had to convince my girlfriend Zara to come & stay with me during the 4 days it would take me to cycle to Leeds to help lug my heavier items and organise a courier to bring my wallet back. It rained on me the whole first week and on some days the head winds were despicable. My neck muscles ached from having to hold up such a massive head for hours on end every day and I’d wake up not being able to look left.
However the nature always cheered me up and distracted me from the elements, the views and landscapes as aforementioned but also the wildlife, herds of deer bounding across the road ahead of me, countless wheeling birds of prey high above, furtive rabbit ears poking out from long grass, pheasants for days & the crepuscular life of bats & hooting owls. We stayed on a working farm one night and hung out with Hugo the one-eyed bullied goat plus numerous chickens and bleating lambs recently separated from their mothers.
By the end of the trip I was loving life. The expedition was a huge success with immense turnout from the nation’s bartenders & I could physically feel the benefits on my mood and health. I was sleeping better, feeling happier & most definitely more cognitively nimble.
“Adventure is escape, it’s a detox for the mind and it determines levels of drive, happiness & creativity.” - Jamie Sparks
I can whole-heartedly agree with this sentiment and I’ve found that I’ve re-discovered parts about me that I thought I had long lost due to growing older & the more tiresome elements of our industry. Big or small, it’s a great & often inexpensive way to get away from the daily grind & combat the more negative symptoms of bartender burnout. I highly recommend taking a plunge and just giving it a go, whatever it might be that appeals to you. Whether its rock climbing in the wild, sea kayaking, wild camping, foraging, hiking, trail running, cycling even puffin flying. It’s most definitely addictive and I’m already planning next year’s expedition where I plan to invite & involve bartenders in the actual adventurous elements of the trip and not just the cocktail heats.
If I can do it – anyone can.