The Cyclist’s Tale

Tales from End to End
The Cyclist’s Tale

by Peter Main

Cycling has been a major hobby of mine since my early teens, so it was a great shock to find I needed a heart bypass operation close to my 50th birthday in 1989. I was convinced that my cycling days were over and this was reinforced when the surgeon told me the probability of my dying during the operation. It was uncomfortably high. Did I really want to go through with it, he asked. Well, I did have the operation and a week later I was back home clutching a page of dos and don’ts from the hospital. Do take some exercise every day otherwise you’ll become a vegetable; don’t overdo it otherwise you’ll drop down dead – very encouraging.

Peter Main
Peter Main

It was a great day when, a few weeks later, I was given permission to ride my bike again. However, the euphoria quickly disappeared when I realised that, only months after riding over Kirkstone Pass, I was now reduced to cycling less than two miles in 20 minutes and arriving home exhausted. At this point, the York Coronary Support Group (a local charity) started to look after my rehabilitation and gave me a place in their exercise class in the hospital gym. They told me my highest safe heart rate was 123 beats per minute. Unfortunately, it was 115 just sitting still. How was I ever going to manage any useful exercise? How was I going to regain the confidence to cycle uphill ever again? With excellent advice, support and encouragement, I gradually increased the distances cycled and the height of the hills climbed and my confidence returned. Just under a year after my operation, I did a 100 mile ride over the North York Moors, satisfied that I was fit once more.

My gratitude towards the Coronary Support Group was immense. Determined to repay them for all they’d done, I decided to do a sponsored bike ride, which would also be a celebration of my total recovery. A ride from Land’s End to John o’Groats would surely catch people’s imagination and maximise the money donated. Luckily, the Cyclists’ Touring Club (of which I’m a member) organised just such a ride in July 1990, so I booked my place.

It was a brilliant tour. The CTC had hired a double decker bus which was converted for living accommodation – there were bunks upstairs and a dining room and small galley downstairs. We had evening meal, bed and breakfast on the bus each day and were given a map reference where it would be each evening. One of the cyclists wanted to bring his girl friend along as a non-cycling passenger, so he enquired if this was allowed. ‘Does she cook?’, asked the tour organiser. ‘Yes’, he said, ‘She’s a professional chef.’ She was immediately hired as our cook and there has never been a cycling tour with better food – we dined like royalty. She was a Japanese lady and when we arrived at John o’Groats she treated us all to a Japanese banquet. Fantastic!

The cycling was challenging as we went on a rather hilly route, avoiding main roads as much as possible. It took us 13 days altogether and with a total distance of 1038 miles, that was an average of 80 miles per day. The bus usually parked at caravan sites each night, but there was one overnight stay for which the CTC had failed to find a suitable place. We needed to stay in Braemar (near the Balmoral Estate in Scotland), but the owner of the caravan site there refused to accommodate 15 sweaty cyclists in a battered double decker bus. Apparently, we fell a long way below his rather exacting standards. We found somewhere else to park for the night outside the village, but the police arrived and told us to move on – the caravan park owner had clearly informed them of our presence. After much discussion, they eventually allowed us to stay in the village where there was space to park next to a public tap as a water supply was essential.

John and Nancy go with my best wishes. They are doing the walk before the first flush of youth has finally disappeared and they will return with many precious memories for the years ahead. However, I can’t get one particular thought out of my head. Why subject yourself to sore feet, aching legs, all those stiles and miles of muddy paths when you can get there so much faster on a bicycle?

Peter Main is Emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of York and a Nobel Prize nominee. He still gives lectures and likes cycling, walking, music (he’s a church organist and plays the Northumbrian small pipes) as well as writing articles for a science magazine.