"It's Easier than Switzerland"

Fear, adventures and bicycles. Plus interview with Laura Moss and the 2021 Cycle Touring Festival

Last year, I had the pleasure of interviewing Laura Moss about cycle touring. Laura is living proof that you can have adventures alongside a full time job and otherwise “normal” life. She’s a solicitor for charities and social enterprises. Her adventures have included walking across a frozen lake in Siberia, hiking across the desert in Oman and many cycle tours, including cycling around the world.

Put two cyclists together and we obviously got talking about cycling around the world, which Laura refers to simply as “our big cycling trip”. The longest I’ve ever spent on a bicycle tour is 50 days (that’s my big trip!), so I was really curious about what changed when you went ultra long. After a few months cycle touring simply becomes a way of life. But do things get different after two years?

“I guess what surprised me the most was that the cycling itself was not a big part of the trip,” said Laura. “It was much more about the people we met… the cycling itself was almost secondary.” The bike was the vehicle, but the memories are all about people and places.

And then she shared this story with me: “I was terrified about crossing the Alps. I was thinking: I’ve never crossed a mountain range on my bike before. It’s going to be awful. I was getting really obsessed with it and I wasn’t sleeping because I was worrying about it.” But she got there and she did it without any drama.

“And that was actually one of the really big lessons: you can get through anything. No matter how hard something is, you’ll always get through it. Sit back and pedal and you’ll get through it.”

At the time, that story really struck me, because I’d experienced something so similar myself. On my big cycling trip, the general plan was just to cycle to Switzerland and back (from the UK). We didn’t have a structured itinerary or even a hard deadline. But for the entire outward journey, I had Switzerland looming in the distance.

I was terrified of arriving in Switzerland and yet every pedal stroke was taking me closer to the thing I was dreading. Why? Because I knew it had big hills - serious hill that went on forever, mountain passes that proper cyclists trained on. It was hard. It was going to be brutal. The closer I got the more the dread grew.

And it’s funny because it’s not like I’m afraid of hard work and effort. I was just scared of being put to the test, of meeting these hardest hills. Switzerland had turned into a monster unknown - as I imagine the Alps had for Laura. Yet really, I knew nothing about it at all except that other people said it was hard.

Then, eventually, we reached Switzerland… and I loved it. I say this comfortably five years after the fact, but I’m fairly certain I loved it at the time too. There is something strangely satisfying about pitting yourself against a hill in a slow siege. Getting in bottom gear and sitting there for hours, seeing who will break first - me or the hill - and knowing it will be neither. Plus with excessive uphill comes glorious long winding descents, through pine forest and alpine meadows (eventually). And let’s not forget the huge bags of Swiss wafer biscuits on the bottom shelf in the supermarket, to sweeten the deal.

I thought that I needed to be a certain sort of someone to tackle those big hills. I thought I had to be epic and hardcore - or even just fast and strong. But actually, being the hero is not really how most adventures take place. They take place by putting one foot in front of the other and finding a gear so low that you can pedal in it all day, if the hill makes you. It’s about small steps. Finding the smallest of steps and taking it again and again.

One of the things that puts people off adventures, or makes people put off their adventure into the distance future, is that fear of the unknown element. But dealing with situations out of your control is an integral part to adventure. Sure, you do the best you can to prepare in advance. But if there’s no surprise or uncertainty, if everything goes to plan, then you’ve accidentally gone on a package holiday.

Now, I’m not one for all that motivational “Life begins outside your comfort zone” stuff. Because yes, it does. But I’m in Mountain Rescue and I know it can quite easily go the other way too. However, there is an extreme power in knowing that, if you do go a little out of your comfort zone, you can deal with it. Not in a heroic or egotistical way, but with a quiet confidence - a trust in yourself. You don’t need to be the Fastest or Fittest or Best by whatever measurement anyone cares to make. But you’ll do it, slow and measured, one step at a time.

Laura Moss and her husband Tim host the Cycle Touring Festival every year. This year’s event is virtual and is running this week and next, from 12th - 21st February 2021. There are plenty of talks, workshops, discussion panels and even an Open Mic to sign up to. (I’ll be in Clare Cottet’s talk about cycling Pamir to Karakoram on Saturday.) For the full programme, check out cycletouringfestival.co.uk