Way back in 2000, I was sitting on a train out of central Birmingham. I saw a free newspaper and, flicking through, I saw an advert: "Ride from London to Paris for the NDCS".
Back then, I was did no sport. I was crazy about music, my friends were all crazy about music, and I even played in a band. When I read that advert, I wished that I could do something like that ride. I had recently finished my degree and was trying to take a positive attitude to life. It was the commitment to positivity that made me question my immediate reaction: Why wish I could do it? Why couldn't I do it?
Soon after, I had signed up to do the ride and bought what I thought was a nice bike. I couldn't understand why the shop had tried to convince me to buy the lighter one. The lighter one was a bit cheaper, but it didn't have a suspension fork and the steering felt too fast. The shop said it was better, but I wanted stability and that suspension looked cool.
So it was a mountain bike-shaped-object that I propped up against the wall of the lab. And it was the same bike-shaped-object that prompted a fellow student to invite me mountain biking.
We went to Coed-Y-Brenin. Packing the bike into the car, I deflated my tyres to get them past the brake blocks. When we got there, I thought my friend looked ridiculous in his purple cycling jacket and tights. I thought that there couldn't be that big a difference between his suspension fork and mine. They looked pretty similar. I thought that the Race Face sticker on his bike was pretty funny... What a stupid name.
It was raining, but we set off into with me dressed in heavy cotton clothes. I could not believe how tough this was. My head span and the stupid gears wouldn't change, especially when I was pedalling hard and really needed them. I wanted to take short cuts, but my friend wasn't having it. We'd driven for hours to get here.
When the impossible climbing was over, we turned to riding along terrifyingly thin trails. Everything was pointy rocks, and built up so that I felt like I'd stumbled into Kickstart. It wasn't so bad - if I kept looking right down at my tyre, I could make sure it was on-line but stuff kept surprising me as I hit it. Then, at the end of the narrow bit, the track dropped down vertically to a gravel road. I just hit the brakes hard. "You can't ride that on a bike", I said. When my friend rode it and it looked much less vertical, but I pushed down to be on the safe side.
The rain just kept coming, and my clothes were heavy with it. My trousers kept catching on the saddle. Somehow, though, this was the most fun I'd had in years.
More downhill narrow stuff, and there was a serious guy behind me. He started shouting abuse at me and I wanted to get out of the way, but I was braking as hard as I could manage and just hanging on. I wished I wasn't holding him up.
We let a load of people past before my friend and I made our way down to the end of the trail. It ended with a confusing maze of roots. Every one looked slippery, but my perspective had changed since we set out. People could ride bikes on this stuff. So I tried.
And I failed. The pointy bar-ends caught me on the inside of my thigh as I crashed over them. I was OK-ish. It hurt to walk, and I needed a cup of tea, but I would be OK.
Before London to Paris came around, I had dumped the bike-shaped-object and laid down £500 on a Specialized. Again, it felt like it had twitchy handling, but I realised that it was a good thing. It was precision, and soon it was natural.
I kept riding off-road and trying to learn about this sport. Crashing on every ride, making friends to ride with, and generally having a fine old time. I couldn't believe how fast my mind had to work on the bike, and how much technique there was to all this.
So, I rode out of London as a "mountain biker". I arrived in Paris with another new idea of what bikes could do and how they could bring people together.
10 years later, and just last weekend I travelled from London to Paris again. This time working as a guide with a fair bit of cycling experience behind me. And I had the privilege to see people exceeding their expectations and extending their boundaries. I had the pleasure of Northern France and their farmer's hay-sculpture.
It's good to look back and seen how transforming cycling has been for me. To remember how many things seem natural now, but were alien then. I'm lucky to have the chance to share people's discovery of cycling. I just try to share the enthusiasm without all the crap we think is necessary. And it's great.
Weirdly, I'll soon be going back to Birmingham for the kind of music that drove my life back then. Swan, Godflesh, and Napalm Death all together at the Supersonic Festival. Moving forward, but not forgetting where I came from (until beer intervenes).