Musings On The Journey So Far: Tip Of An Iceberg

Reaching Vancouver has turned out to be a much bigger milestone than I ever thought it would. Before my pedals started spinning out of Deadhorse I never really put any thought into Canada. To me it was just a land mass that I had to get through to reach the good stuff. I had no appreciation of its awesome landscape, incomprehensible size, cultural roots nor its beautiful people. The journey to Vancouver was always supposed to be the realisation of an Alaskan dream followed by some pretty hardcore training. Reality turned out to be very different; Alaska was amazing but from the first few days Justin and I were cycling in the Saint Elias mountains, Yukon, Canada has blown my socks off. I love it for it is both awe-inspiring and comfortable. The culture is like a toned down more accessible version of what I’m used to in the UK but with people who seem to appreciate and understand their landscape and identity so much more. As brainless as it is, I’ve even developed an appreciation for their national obsession in Ice Hockey. If I wasn’t so excited about what the next two years may hold for me on the road I’d be trawling Vancouver’s bars and coffee shops in search of a young lady to keep me here.

But how did I get to Vancouver? Here is some statistics from the tour so far:

The route cycled south from Prudhoe Bay to Vancouver

A= Prudhoe Bay, B= Fairbanks, C= Whitehorse, D= Hyder, E= Smithers, F= Prince George, G= Canmore, H= Lillooet, I= Vancouver

  • Total distance cycled since Prudhoe Bay: 3237 miles (not including unloaded jaunts around town)
  • Total Distance cycled since leaving the UK:  3906 miles (includes semi-loaded training in Fairbanks)
  • Total Altitude climbed since Prudhoe Bay: 147,047 feet
  • Number of days cycling since Prudhoe Bay: 66 (28/07/10 to 18/10/10)
  • Number of days off since Prudhoe Bay: 17
  • Longest Day: 79.5 miles (13/10/10, Sorrento to Kamloops Lake, BC, Canada)
  • Average daily mileage since Prudhoe Bay: 49 miles (darn those lazy days on the Icefields Parkway!)
  • Most climbing done in one day: 5832 feet (08/08/10, Elliott highway to Fairbanks)
  • Highest Point: 6,850 feet (2,088m) (03/10/10, Bow Summit on Icefields Parkway)
  • Lowest temperature: -5°C (21/09/10)
  • Highest Temperature: 34°C (15/08/10)
  • Top speed (before 21/09/10 when bastard bike computer broke): 48.5 mph (13/08/10)
  • Number of days with perceived headwind: 65
  • Number of days with acknowledged tailwind: 1
  • Punctures: 3 (all due to rubbish tire liners)

These statistics don’t lie, this first leg of the tour has thrown up some challenges in terms of distance, altitude and weather. Any obstacles that I have had to overcome have ultimately been extremely rewarding: The bizarre turn from extremely hot to extremely wet weather as we approached the Canadian border from Alaska put to rest any doubts or ponderings over the best techniques to deal with unfavorable conditions. Every climb would eventually end with either an extraordinary view, thrilling roll down the other side, or simply a full feeling of accomplishment. Schleps into relentless headwinds were particularly rewarding for me in their symbolising my insignificance in the face of nature yet concurrently my stubborn refusal to let it defeat me. Poor and unpaved road surfaces focused the mind and encouraged further appreciation of my splendid cycling machine. Technical failures and kit malfunctions led to problem solving and the application of life learnt skills (such as sewing) in ways that provide a small boost of victory. And I have learnt to channel the power of beautiful surroundings into combatting physical lows.

When I started the tour I had the idea that while 80% of the time I would be suffering and lapping the shore of misery, the remaining 20% would be extraordinarily exhilarating beyond anything I could previously imagine. This outlook has proven thus far to be incredibly naive. For our first month together Justin and I would often chant this mantra at one another as a kind of quantification of what we were experiencing at the time: Misery would be met with the perceived knowledge that we were paying into the 80% banks while exhilaration was tainted by the feeling of using up some of the valuable 20% credit. The last month has been so good that we stopped using this equation. So far I’d say it has been more 80% fantastic and 20% just plain good. Even during wearying times of misery and self-doubt I’ve been having a thoroughly enjoyable and fulfilling time. So much so that during a particularly wet evening on the Yellowhead Highway I muttered through our nylon walls to Justin, the now immortal words; “I hope this rain continues into tomorrow as I want to find out how I’ll cope”. I was nevertheless extremely thankful to hear the rain had stopped when we awoke the following morning.

There have also been some peculiarities and annoyances. Aside from having tire liners that rubbed holes in my inner tubes thus creating the very problem I bought them to prevent, the only real annoyance for me has been peoples bizarre belief that I am Australian. No disrespect to the bunch of convicts and second-rate cricketers that live down in the southern hemisphere, but I take offence at this. Throughout Alaska and the Yukon territory nearly every one I spoke to seemed to think I was from Oz. The clever ones would ask whether I was from New Zealand or Australia while the dumb ones would not even have to ask to confirm their misguided interpretation, it would only spill out when they mentioned things such as the problem we have with Aborigines at home (where? in Croydon?!?). One American chap I met up on the Dalton was engaged in a conversation with myself and a true Australian for a good few minutes before asking what part of Australia we were both from! I find this particularly insulting in Canada where they have pictures of my Queen on their money and get BBC World piped into their homes. I have found myself confronting these false assumptions with the increasingly honed comic verse that my accent is pure: “I am from the motherland for which all you north Americans should be grateful. All your accents are just an abomination on the purity that is the English language as me and my fellow (southern) countrymen speak it. We gave the US their freedom once we realised they were speaking the English language in such a degenerate way that they must be simple and we only hold on to links with Canada because they’re harmless.” I have often spent a good while speaking in an Australian accent, I don’t know why, you’d have thought I’d have more self-respect. Ever more strange considering the levels of cheek I’ve found I can ascend to on account of my accent… they love it!*

Reading Town Hall

The other notable oddity that has frequently made me chuckle in Canada concerns where I’m from. More often than not when people ask me I’ll just say London, everybody knows about London so it saves me having to spout a geographical qualifier. It turns out that in Canada more people have heard of Reading (located about 35 miles west of London)  than they have London! Canadian public broadcast CBC Radio 1 has a show called ‘As It Happens‘ which uses my home town in a way that Wikipedia can explain for me:

A frequently cited example of the show’s sometimes whimsical sense of humour relates to its frequent references to the UK town of Reading, Berkshire. After almost any lighter news story or interview that emanates from any location in the UK, the As It Happens host will conclude the piece by straight-facedly noting how far the UK location is from Reading, frequently giving the distance in both miles and some other form of strange, non-standard measurement (e.g., 733,000 garden gnomes, lined up hat to hat).

This long-standing tradition on the show dates from the mid-1970s, when English-born segment producer George Somerwill once concluded a program script with a note that a small village mentioned in the preceding segment was located ‘nine miles from Reading’. This note, intended as a serious clarification, was totally baffling to most Canadian listener

s…and even to the rest of the show’s staff. It quickly became a running joke on the show to identify all places in the UK (even major centres like London) in relation to their proximity to the comparatively obscure borough of Reading.

I’d always described Reading as ‘the best place in the world before you leave it and discover what’s outside’, a description I’m sure many people could apply to their home town. The reality appears to be that Reading is actually the center of a big Canadian joke, a fact that raises its cultural significance immeasurably. You don’t hear Canadians talking about Swindon now do you?

I get the impression that Alaska and the Canadian north aren’t visited by that many British folk who make themselves available to the locals. There maybe a few who slip through unnoticed in their rented RV cocoons but generally I felt like a bit of a novelty, weird considering the ‘special relationship’ the British perceive to have with the US and Canada. I’ve been so starved of fellow Englishmen that whenever I’ve found one they’ve had to endure me talking at them about Blackpool Football Club and my pride at having left the UK before the Conservatives got into power (although begrudgingly I’ve been told that Cameron is doing a decent job). It was like heaven reaching Banff where the pubs overflow with Brits; I could chat to loads of people about Blackpool Football Club, even Scots, bless them.

The further south I travel the further divorced I’ll become from mainstream society and the more of a novelty I’ll be. This is something I look forward to; being in strange lands where they speak a language I don’t understand… and then I’ll hit Mexico. From my previous visits to the US and the many Americans I’ve met, I have a real soft spot for the country. Although not without its faults, I find its people endearing and helpful, its landscapes uniquely diverse, its politics mystifying (Sarah Palin anyone?) and its culture bizarre. It will certainly be expensive, definitely be winter, but should also be a lot of fun. Bring it on.

*I am in no way racist… just English and therefore better than everyone else! We used to own the world you know.

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