It’s not even 6 yet. Not even light. But I’m alert with nerves because today I’m starting bike commuting again. It’s my first bike commute since October – bear with me, I’ll explain why – and it’s never a great journey. Bedford to Milton Keynes, 20 miles as the crow flies (and on a bike you can pretty much do it in a straight line), but most of it is uphill, potholed, lonely and hard work. The back roads are a commuter rat-run and rush hour drivers are hostile and aggressive at this time of day.
So it’s with some trepidation that I set off, leaving the kids asleep and hoping they can get themselves up in time for school without me.
It’s an uninspiring morning – grey, chilly, and damp. Worms have stretched themselves out across the cycle path offering themselves up to the guillotine of my wheels – I can’t dodge them all I’m afraid. My rucksack seems to weigh a ton and I wonder what it is I’ve crammed in there that I feel I can’t do without today.
Knickers, food, and a sturdy lock – what else does a woman need?
Apparently it’s trousers, since although I know for sure I have a full set of clothes ready at my office, I can’t escape a niggling doubt that somewhere along the line I’ve forgotten to bring the trousers. I’ve got a staffing meeting at 9:30 and I can’t turn up to that in sweaty tights.
So I’m carrying extra weight on my back to lift some weight from my mind – I think that’s how it works. My rice pudding breakfast sits high in my chest – too early for food – so I’m willing that energy into my bloodstream to power my legs for the next hour. I just can’t afford – in time or confidence – for anything to go wrong on this journey. But I’m reminded, as I turn into Wootton, and there’s a brief break in the clouds, that there’s a great reward for getting up and outdoors this early. Every sunrise is worth seeing. Every new day brings a brand new way to see the world. I might not get a puncture after all.
It seems like forever since I’ve come this way. There’s a big sign saying ‘Berry Wood’ where my pee-hedge used to be – and in its place are 50 new houses and a vast flat area behind them for hundreds more. There’s no trace of the actual wood that used to stand here, and I’m seeing more and more of my route changing like this. They’ve put traffic lights in the middle of a nice straight Strava segment. Sign O’ The Times, eh, Prince?
I’ve done this journey a hundred times but not since I had heart surgery back in October. I’m still feeling nervous and vulnerable riding on my own and I know there’s a big test up ahead. I could mark my journey by milestones: the end of my road, the rushing river at Bromham, alpacas, pigs, and the bridge over the M1… as I pass each one, the chance of me turning back and getting in the car diminishes. And I’m already halfway there and facing Marston Hill. Sounds a bit like ‘Bastard Hill’? Yup… and not only because it’s long and narrow and often involves close uphill passes from buses and lorries. It’s because without fail, some bastard on an ebike will cruise past me while I’m hanging over the bars chugging out every single turn of the pedals. But there’s a reason I need to do it the hard way. I’m training. I’m taking on Alpe d’Huez in 20 weeks.
My commute is part of my training – when you don’t feel like it, when you’re pissed off by e-bikes, when you know you could go round it instead of over it, and you still press on, that’s the mindset you need for a mountain.
So I reach the top at Cranfield with a real feeling of elation. Not only have I just notched up some important uphill training, but it’s literally downhill all the way to work from here. Cranfield sits on a plateau and I wonder which came first, this town or Richard Dreyfus’ flat-topped pile of mashed potato in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. They built an airfield on Cranfield’s flat top.
I wonder if the aliens will land here one day and see Milton Keynes spread out as I do now. They might enjoy the snowdome or the vast indoor shopping centre… or they might get to race around the Redways, MK’s vast network of shared use paths that thread in and out of its regimented grids of roads.
The Redways are, in a way, brilliant. You can get anywhere in MK on a bike without going on any roads, but quite frequently it is anywhere that you end up, because it is incredibly easy to get lost. All the paths, and roads they run alongside, look the same. There’s barely any signage. The surface is covered in debris.
But they are a safe way to get across a really busy city, and once you know where you’re going, can trim your journey time and give you a bit of stress-free riding away from the traffic. I’m charging along them on 400 quid of (incongruously) Campagged, bombproof, rough-hewn aluminium, bought from a charity that ships used bikes out to projects in Africa where mobility makes a real difference to people’s lives. I’m riding by choice, but I never forget that for some people, their bike is a lifeline.
There’s a strike at work today over pensions. I don;t think I can think that far ahead. I don't want to contemplate old age, when I might not be able to ride any more. A long line of cars waits to cross the picket line, but I can roll right through, grabbing a leaflet as I go like a pro grabbing a bidon from a soigneur on a far more important ride than this. The showers are cold today, and stepping out in front of the full-length mirror, my whole body is pink. But I’m tingling, and I realise this is the first time in many weeks I have got to work without a sense of dread about the day ahead, without thinking about it once on my journey. I’m energised.
I sit at my desk, log on, and already know I’ve achieved something.