The rain jacket performed as advertised — by keeping the water out, that is — for the first twenty minutes of drizzling. A little over ten o’clock, when it started pouring, the brighlty coloured jacket gave up. After about one hour of being drenched, I would have given up as well and moved to the shelter of the van but for a small yet very significant detail. The two girls in our group were going strong despite the ceaseless deluge. Both of them had lousier bikes than mine and one of them even lacked a rain jacket. Because of their resilience, I was feeling like a sissy for even entertaining thoughts of quitting. “If they can do it…” I kept repeating to encourage myself. Which, I have to admit, is a very misogynistic mantra for steeling one’s self.
Water was sloshing in my leather shoes, with no way of escaping. Wet clothes were chafing with each pedal stroke. My body was screaming for a break from the wet and cold wind. And we still had five very long kilometres to go before stopping for lunch. And you know what? This wasn’t even the worst part of this tour!
How did I get myself into this mess?
I didn’t organise it myself, that’s for sure. After all, we were a large group and my experience in planning cycling trips only involves a couple of persons. So how do you plan a bike ride for a group of 50 people?
It’s simple: you don’t! You call in the specialists.
Some months earlier it was announced in a company wide email that we’d be supporting the charity Special Effect for a second year in a row. Special Effect are a great charity, aimed at aiding people with disablities to play video games, and I was glad to be able to help in any way.
This time around we were to take an even more interesting route than last year’s, pedalling over 350 kilometres from Milan to Venice. Having missed the previous ride (London to Paris) due to personal issues, I was dying to get into this one. Who doesn’t want to help a charity AND travel in the process?
Organising the ride would fall again on the shoulders of the folks at Adventure Cafe. I had no idea what to expect from them, but I assumed they must be good. After all, I reasoned, the company wouldn’t have employed them for a second time if they weren’t. To prove me right for trusting them, shortly after all willing participants enrolled, the AC folks sent a training plan devised to get us into shape. Like any dilligent person, I’ve read it once, promised myself I would follow it and promptly forgot about its existance. After all, we had two months left before the ride and all the time in the world to get back into shape.
As the day of departure drew nearer, more preparatory notes and materials were issued. It all culminated with a small-font 10-page pdf we received about two weeks before the trip that contained anything and everything there is to know about cycling tours. After reading the pdf I got really worried about the upcoming ride. The shortest day would clock a bit over 100 kilometres. I was doing 80k at best on a Saturday or Sunday, then resting for the rest of the week until going at it again. I didn’t have proper cycling gear, nor the wish to spend hundreds of pounds on it. My posterior was hurting every time I sat more than one hour in the saddle. Bottom line, I felt totally unprepared and anxious.
A couple of days before the ride, the AC people came by our office with a van to pick the bikes. They had to drive close to 50 bikes, all the way from London to Milan and wait for us there. A tough job, for sure, but so helpful for the riders. For the ones of us that didn’t have a roadworthy bike there was the possibility of renting from AC. Around lunch on a Tuesday the bikes were picked up and we knew things were getting real!
And then came the day of my flight. The participants were supposed to arrange their own passage; this would allow for people to make their own travel plans as they saw fit. We were supposed to leave Milan early on Friday morning and arrive in Venice Sunday afternoon. Since I decided to take the minimum number of vacation days, the flight to Milan was set for Thursday evening.
As luck would have it, that Thursday happened to be the second hottest day in the UK since thermometers were invented. A harsh awakening awaited at the Liverpool Train Station where the Express train to Standsted Airport departs from. In a country where 30 degrees usually lead to train delays and dehydration warnings being posted everywhere, 38 degrees Celsius meant no trains whatsoever were working and everyone was in a frenzy.
What to do?
First, panic! I looked at the mass of confused tourists clustering around the Stansted Express stall. They didn’t seem to have a solution either. I ran outside, fumbling on Citymapper for an answer. No succes. The National Express site — a bus service that can take you anywhere across the UK for large sums of money — was also hastily checked to no avail. All buses were full and at any rate it would have taken close to 3 hours to get to the airport from where I was. Just before succumbing to despair, the obvious answer came to me and I started running back to the station. As I approached the Stansted Express ticket counter I started shouting left and right “Anyone want to share a cab to Stansted?”
About the same tine, two guys that had the same idea were roaring their own “Share an Uber to Stansted?” I was definitely in! Two other ladies, a mother and daughter, adhered to our hastily formed group. En masse we headed outside. There it became obvious that the 5 of us would not fit in a normal car. Before we had to start drawing straws or fight to the death for the seats, the two ladies seemed to think better and decided to quit the group to my guilty relief. As the hailed ride was making its way to us through the sluggish London traffic, I dashed across the street to get cash.
When I returned, the two guys I partnered with were busy finding a fourth passenger. Having that extra fourth person would have considerably lowered the fare price for all of us. As the car was pulling at the kerb, a Spanish girl heard our inviting pleas and frantically yelled “Take me, take me!” She was extatic to have found us and us her. The lugagge were nimbly thrown in the trunck of a brand new Prius in a chorus of honking horns and we were off! For the whole 20 minutes since finding out the train was cancelled to getting in that Uber, I couldn’t shake the feeling I was playing an unwanted role in an Emir Kusturica movie.
In the car, we finally got to introduce ourselves. Recently-single-George and ginger-George, the two friends, were going for an impromptu drinking party somewhere around Gothenburg in Sweden. Details on exact location were sketchy but they were counting on getting more info before touching down.
Maria was heading to Madrid to meet with the family for the weekend. After some chatting it turned out she and recently-single-George worked for the same company at some point. The three of them were happily chatting and exchanging stories while I was inwardly recording the crazy happenings of the day and mentally trying to make the car move faster through the traffic jams. At the airport we split our separate ways, not before splitting the hefty 140£ bill.