Monday, 18 August 2014

Relationship Overhaul

Cycling With My Wife

My wife Lorna is a family therapist so she has a good understanding of where things go wrong in relationships. Our youngest of three children is about to leave for university and it has become clear to Lorna that if we are to enjoy old age together, it would be better if we shared a few interests. And although we do share quite a few, my main pastime of long-distance cycle touring is not one of them. Being semi-retired and mainly dedicated to writing, I am inclined to spend months at a time on my bike. In 2008-9 I cycled 10,000 miles to Japan with my then 18yr old son over a period of 10 months (link to bestselling book Long Road Hard Lessons below). Consequently she could see that she might be living through long periods without me once our daughter Scarlett leaves home, and although we are comfortable being apart this did not seem ideal.

Laos. Sam & I on our 10,000mile ride to Japan in 2009

Lorna has never been attracted to, or enjoyed cycling. It was a shock to me therefore, that last year after my son Sam told me he didn't have time to cycle over the Himalayas with me, Lorna suggested she might train to do it with me. We would need to do a few other trips first, I told her, and she'd need a decent bike. This is how we ended up cycling down the Elbe river in East Germany this summer and down through the Czech Republic. It was a risk, I knew that, but probably a risk worth taking.

The Elbe Radweg (cycle path) is a beautiful route, passing through picturesque countryside and lovely towns as it meanders (in our direction - upstream) from Hamburg to the hills east of Prague. In addition to the benefit of meticulous German cyclepath engineering, the big plus for a reluctant cyclist is that it's almost entirely flat. Decent distances can be covered each day with relative ease, or so I thought. I planned an itinerary starting Lorna off gently with a 35km first day, gradually building up to a few 75km days towards the end. After all, I told myself, when my son Sam and I had been cycling along the Danube cycle path we had generally managed to cover 100km before lunchtime. Hence my feeling that this plan erred well on the conservative side of caution.

The Germans know how to make cycle paths & route maps

We began our ride in the town of Dessau, staying at the modernist architectural shrine of the Bauhaus campus, mostly designed by Walter Gropius. It was an auspicious start which Lorna began with trepidation. The panniers on the back of her new bike caused her problems immediately and she struggled to keep her balance as she lifted a cautious leg over the crossbar. In a moment she was cursing me as the bike fell sideways and the mudguard stays cut her delicate shins while she attempted to steady it. I looked on dumbfounded as dark red blood ran down her legs. How could anyone not be able to manage a bicycle with a couple of panniers? I asked myself. Quickly I taped over the exposed sharp ends of the stays and got us on the road. The path was lovely and we moved along slowly, Lorna wobbling a little but assuring me she was fine.

Walter Gropius' Bauhaus building. A shrine to the birth of modernist architecture.

By mid-day we were approaching our target, the historic small city Wittenburg, where the Reformation began with Martin Luther nailing his ninety-odd indulgences of the catholic church to a church door. That very church tower was in sight when I noticed Lorna was not behind me. I turned to see her sitting in the grass at the verge. I waited but she stayed put. Returning to see what was wrong and dreading a puncture, I met with a very angry woman.
"I cannot for the life of me understand why we did not stop at that last cafe by the river as all the other cyclists had!" she exclaimed in fury.
"They were probably having lunch before continuing to Torgau or somewhere even further," I replied. "We are staying in Wittenburg, therefore we need to find a hostel or pension before the rooms all go. I thought we'd do that then have lunch straight afterwards. There's a hostel just across the road there!"
"I don't care," she snapped, "It's nearly 40 degrees and I am absolutely shattered. You may as well get off your bike because I'm not moving from here for at least fifteen minutes!"

There seemed to be more cuts on her legs. The bike had been thrown down rather than parked on the side stand. I picked it up and sighed deeply. We had only been cycling for a couple of hours along a flat path. How on Earth could she possibly be shattered?

Lorna as she gingerly makes her way on a section between Dessau & Wittenburg

That evening Lorna was quiet and depressed.
"This is not going to work, Mark," she said over dinner, wringing hands.
She seemed emotional and her eyes fixed me with a serious stare. It did not bode well. I admit I was a little scared of what she might do. Violence while I slept that night seemed a distinct possibility. Still baffled by how anyone could be so traumatised by a 35km cycle ride and a bit of heat, I tried to look sympathetic. It was important that she felt I understood, I told myself. Not that I sorted the problem out necessarily, just that I understood and that I was prepared to listen to her. This I have learned about women after years of doing the male thing of thinking when a woman complains that it means she wants you to sort the problem out for her. I credit Lorna with teaching me this lesson... eventually.

After a discussion that appeared calm, and subsequently became so, we agreed that the following day (which I had written down as 50km but was actually over 60) Lorna would spend the day visiting museums etc in Wittenburg, then take her bike on the train to meet me in Torgau. She tried to relent the next morning, not wanting to be a quitter, but I insisted. It was a good idea, even given though there was work on the line and she had to wrestle her bike on and off a coach for the end of the journey. I had demonstrated understanding and she felt good about that. I should say it was not really in my nature. I am a  bit of a "failure is not being knocked down, failure is not getting up again," kind of a person. I enjoy the challenge, even the pain. Lorna never needed to miss a day's cycling the rest of the trip, so my restraint on this occasion was rewarded.

Castles and cathedrals abound along the Elbe (a view from our Meisen pension window)

Both of us were rewarded over the next ten days with beautiful countryside and some lovely towns and cities as we made our way (slowly) towards Prague. Lorna increased her maximum distance to 40km and then to 50. One day without realising it she even managed 63km when we took a wrong turn. But although she was able to cover the distance physically, she struggled emotionally. She felt nervous that she would crash or not be able to manage to cover the distance to that day's target. However much I reassured her that there were plenty of places we could stay and that we were free to do as little or as much as she wanted to, she retained a look of trepidation in her eyes most of the day. I turned to find her riding along crying with the fear of what lay ahead at times. My older daughter pointed out later after we returned home that this is caused by extreme exertion resulting in an outpouring of built-up stress, and so it seemed. It scared me a bit at the time, being the only one she could turn to (or perhaps attack).

Typical architecture - The beautiful town square in Litemerice (Czech Rep)

Throughout our 10 days from Dessau to Prague Lorna felt the cycling was a negative experience, despite thoroughly enjoying what she saw along the way and the places we stayed. Arriving in Prague was a huge emotional watershed for her and by the evening of that day she had begun to have a sense that she had really achieved something worthwhile. For a lot of the way she had doubted she would even complete it. But now, despite not being a sporty person, she could already feel the benefit, not only of her increased fitness but of the psychological barriers that she had managed to overcome. We cycle three further days along the Danube in Austria and Germany after moving on to the lovely Cesky Krumlov in the south of Czech Republic. I had hoped to cycle all the way there but that would have been a mistake.

It was not until we returned home last week that Lorna began to feel the real benefits of the expedition. Not only had she faced up to something that she found extremely difficult emotionally, she had actually cycled 519km without serious incident and she somehow she felt changed. Releasing all that stress had transformed her. She felt cleansed. Not only that, she recognised that there is no way she could have experience all those lovely places so intensely if she had been travelling by other means.

 St Vitus Cathedral, Prague

 Lorna on a happy day without cycling

The UNESCO World Heritage city of Cesky Krumlov

"Mum," our son said, when she related her experiences to him, "it took me a three thousand miles before I was really able to enjoy the cycling and not worry about things. A few more trips like this one and you'll be loving it!"
Lorna looked horrified.

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this and his two collections of short stories on Amazon, Smashwords etc.


  1. Great blog post and, as a nervous cyclist myself, I can empathise with Lorna! My OH adores cycling but is adamant that he won't do hills so I am thinking we should definitely pitch up our caravan in a few places along the Elbe Radweg next year and get exploring.

    Stephanie Jane

    1. Hi Stephanie Jane, thanks for your comments. I'm sure your OH would discover that a week of doing hills and he'd find them easy. Mastering gear-changes and having good anticipation of what's ahead is the secret and then the fitness, obviously. But anyway the Elbe Radweg is virtually hill-free and very safe so it sounds perfect for you guys. Hope you have a great time when you go. I also hope you'll find time to have a look at some of my other blog posts. Cheers!