I set off on my tank of a touring bike with a vague plan to cycle to India with my partner Liam. We had some discussions before we pedalled off, agreeing to take it slow and avoid steep mountain passes, especially considering that neither of us had even ridden a bike for about five months, nevermind our 40-50kg loaded beasts. The first few months comprised of battling a record breaking 42 degrees Celsius French heat wave and skirting up and down Pyrenean foothills before seeking rest near Lake Geneva. It was challenging, but mostly fun. The second part of our trip, by comparison, left me feeling a confusing mix of empowered and broken by completely overhauling any preconceived notions of my personal limits!
On a previous trip in 2009 I had cycled a Tour de France pass in the Alps Col de Forclaz (1527m), and we had the bright idea to repeat the ascent. We enjoyed the challenge so much that we became intrigued with the idea of pushing ourselves. Our sensible plans to take it easy abandoned, we cycled over an even bigger pass, Col de Mont Cenis (2081m), to cross over from France into Italy. Drunk on euphoria, we then immediately tackled Col de Lis (1311m), which felt even harder due to steep sections. Our excitement at discovering just what our bodies were capable of resulted in us tackling eight Alpine mountain passes covering 1200km with 20,500m of ascent in just three weeks – and I was carrying a slackline.
Prior to this trip, I would have vehemently argued that I could not cycle a loaded touring bike up a gradient steeper than 10%. I can now confirm (supported by Garmin data!) that I can manage a gradient of 25%. That particular section was unintentional, when we accidentally found ourselves on an unmarked pass after an already difficult day. It was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. I was in tears just from the sheer exertion required to push down my pedals. I told myself that I could not do it. Repeatedly. I told Liam that I could not do it. Repeatedly. My bike kept falling over sideways because I could not pedal it. I could not get back on my bike as gravity was defiantly trying to roll it back down the hill. I cycled 8m sections at a time. I cycled in switchbacks on the switchbacks. And I got there.
And then, there was the supposedly “easy day.” Which turned out to be the hardest day yet. This time I had proper tears, not just from physical exertion, but from the emotional labour required to cycle up steeper and steeper hills, which just when you thought it was all over, surprised you with even more severe gradients. Self doubt started to consume me and negative thoughts about how ‘weak’ I was began to pollute my mind. I realised that I was no longer enjoying myself and I wanted to stop. Exhausted and disappointed with myself, I sat crying into a tin of mackerel in a layby in the rain. Maybe I wasn’t the tough adventure woman I had always thought I was.
My despair was magnified by Liam finding the whole experience much easier than me. In the beginning, my greater cycling experience meant that despite him being male, much taller than me, and six years my junior, we were about equal. However, as we cycled on, the tide turned. It seemed to me that the more I began to struggle, the fitter and faster he became! It was fine most of the time, but on the steeper hills (over 9%), I just did not have the physical strength to push down my pedals for very long. My legs began to fail me, and I needed rests all the time. I felt frustrated because I have pride, so it turns out, in my physical and mental toughness. I did not want to be ‘weaker’ than Liam, I wanted to be as fast as him, and I wanted to carry as much as him. I had a hard lesson to learn.
I found it very difficult to admit to myself, let alone to Liam, that I was reaching my physical limit. After crying alone with my mackerel, we had a big chat that helped me see reason. Liam argued that if I was struggling, it was logical that he should start carrying more than me. I was mortified by having to admit that I needed help and that Liam was stronger than me. Despite challenging gender and age inequality in everyday life, there were maybe undeniable biological differences between Liam and I that I had to acknowledge. Or maybe he just had better gears than me.
I discussed the problems I was having accepting my limitations with some fellow cycle tourers that we met during this period. One seasoned Italian world tourer, Eduardo, simply commented that of course Liam should carry more, he is the man. Another pair, Chris and Keith, reassured me that learning your physical and emotional limits actually makes you stronger. Keith empathised that the greatest lesson he had learnt from his solo bike trip was to know when to stop and ask for help.
Pedalling away from Chris’s house, with Liam now carrying the slackline, I tried to take courage that it was okay to find things hard and ask for support. My heart was telling me how strong I was, but the experience of extreme struggle had left me totally deflated and devoid of my characteristic positivity and confidence. I had never doubted myself in this way before and I was distraught, convinced I would be unable to cycle the two remaining mountain passes that I had been so excited about, including our biggest one yet, Albula, at 2300m. There were tears before 11am.
Well, I made it. We got over the two passes and it surprisingly felt a lot easier than some of the ones we had done before. Partly this was due to us leaving some of our gear behind, having a rest day and inflating my tyres (doh). I had to accept that I was stronger than I was before, even though I didn’t feel it.
Sharing my struggles with friends and family, many have commented that it was stupid to cycle up so many mountain passes, yet I absolutely loved everything about this trip and what we achieved. Incredible adventures are not always just about having fun. They are about discovering your limits, meeting the worst parts of yourself, pushing through those self-critical voices and…learning hard lessons. Yes, I spent some parts of every day cycling over the mountain passes either in tears, or close to them. But, I was happy. And, I learned how to ask for help.
Written by Ruth Naughton-Doe: Ruth has been cycle touring in France, Switzerland and Italy since May 2019 with her partner Liam. Since her first adventure cycle experience in Iceland in 2009, it has always been her dream to cycle across the world, but instead she got stuck cycling up mountain passes! Follow her adventures at www.ruthandliamgoplaces.com or on instagram @ruthandliamgoplaces.