Juliet England: Cycling from coast to coast as a deafie

Posted on July 13, 2017

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She hadn’t been on a bike for years. Now she’s pedalling dozens of miles from the west coast to the east…What could possibly go wrong? And what was a group ride like with a hearing loss?

When our guide Les told us, at the start of our 130-plus mile cycle ride from Whitehaven to Tynemouth, that there was no need to dunk the front wheel of our bikes in the sea that slopped at the bottom of a greasy stone slope, I heard him perfectly well, I just didn’t listen.

Wheel dipping’ is a tradition for coast to coast riders at journey’s start and end, and I was determined to do it – even if it meant sliding in up to my ankles. (It did.)

This was the big one. The C2C, the Sea to Sea. We would tack our way from west to east, the sun and wind at our backs, from the Irish Sea to the North one, across England’s backbone, mainly following National Cycle Routes 71 and 72.

There were 14 of us, and we were an eclectic bunch – a charity worker, business owner, midwife, financial PR specialist, and, ahem, one hard of hearing, self-unemployed layabout.

It’s true that I hadn’t been on a bike for a few years. At all. Instead, I relied on spinning classes for my training, with the added advantage on the road that one can always get off and push. (Look, I only have so many words to play with. I’m not wasting them discussing whether getting off and pushing constitutes cheating. It doesn’t, and that’s the end of the matter.)

Anyway, back to the ride and Day 1 started with the first of four full-English heart attack breakfasts. (Breakfast clearly means breakfast in these parts, and by god we’ll make it work for everyone.)

Pretty villages, stunning scenery and a chance to whizz through Keswick, the Castlerigg stone circle and the rain clearing were among the other high points. A low (or, thinking about it a very high point indeed) was the Whinlatter Pass – not a climb to be sniffed or sneezed at.

Some passing mountain bikers may have actually sneered at me, but their words were lost on the breeze.

Day 2 brought Penrith, a pedal through Greystoke of Tarzan fame and more of some of England’s finest landscapes.

It also brought Hartside. How to convey the full horror of this ascent? It’s a monster of a mountain, an insult of an incline, a hellish hill. For the last 24 hours, it had been whispered of in our group in tense words of fear and awe.

At the bottom, Les, the head guide, says this climb has made grown cyclists weep. Some have had to push their bikes all the way; others have had to be conveyed to the summit in the van.

The path winds up gradually, evening off in places. The scale of the task certainly demands respect. I get off at some points and push, for lengthy periods, grinding upwards, my breathing sounding like Darth Vader’s. The café at the top is a hopeless mirage, reappearing briefly at intervals before disappearing from view in the folds of the hill.

“Sloooooow and steady,” offers Les in his reassuring Tyneside tones.

When I think I genuinely can go on no more, a tarmac road starts, from where it gets (relatively¸ mind) easier. Cars, trucks and motorbikes nip past, alarmingly close. Suddenly, somehow, I’ve done it, and I’m propping the bike up outside England’s highest café (1903m) before stumbling in, hyperventilating and beetroot-faced. My legs buckle under me as I fall into a chair. Someone pushes a mug of tea in front of me. I’m so disorientated that I don’t even ask about the cakes. That’s how serious it is.

At dinner that evening, the cyclist who made it to the top of Hartside first is keen to tell me of that fact. He avoids a slap by the narrowest of margins.

It’s the toughest hill of the ride…apart from the next day and the ascent from Stanhope to Parkhead Station, where we are billeted for the evening.

The final day’s glorious descent took us across the moor and downhill through varied terrain from parkland to woods and disused railway line, along the Tyne and in out of Newcastle as far as the east coast at Tynemouth.

So, how did I manage as a deafie? The short answer is, remarkably well. My room-mate, who, mercifully, was lovely, learned very quickly not to talk to me if I wasn’t wearing my hearing aids, or didn’t have her full attention. Top marks.

The guiding team and my fellow riders also soon adapted. It’s not easy hearing someone cycling next to you on a blowy road, and I had to try and keep well in as I knew the sound of passing traffic could be missed. I’m not a driver, in what is surely the most significant contribution to road safety since Goodyear tyres, so I often had to be reminded (loudly) to take care.

Evenings brought the challenge of catching conversation in a group against the background hum of a bar or restaurant, but that’s always the case in social situations. I also made sure I sat close to the guide doing the nightly briefing for the following day’s ride.

Equally, there were a dozen or more new voices to tune into, but it was no different to meeting any other set of people and I’m always going to prefer one-to-one conversation to group chats around a table.

Sadly, the hearing loss was no excuse for not having done enough training. Or having to get off and push. Or being miles behind the group. You can only play the deaf card so often.

Juliet travelled with Saddle Skedaddle. Details: https://www.skedaddle.co.uk/

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