“Mum, nothing to worry about. I’m in an ambulance but I’m fine, I promise…”

“Mum, nothing to worry about. I’m in an ambulance, but I’m fine, I promise… Just hurt my ankle a bit” Jesus, I wasn’t kidding either of us. My put-on, cheery voice wasn’t going to fool her when she got that answerphone message. Truth was, after 7 weeks, 12 countries and 6500 miles, my trip was over. I’d had my first motorcycle crash about as far from home as I could be.

————–

Bone on Bone

The first moments after a crash are the strangest. You don’t really feel the pain, that comes later. And you don’t think about the possible damage you’ve done to yourself. Every biker I’ve spoken to says this; as the adrenaline rushes through your veins your first thoughts are to the bike. How was it?! And would I be able to keep riding it?

I’d hit the ground hard, really hard, and the wind had been knocked out of me. Gasping my breath back I got to my feet straight away, eyes firmly set on the bike. I took two steps, ripping off my helmet as I went, before my left leg buckled beneath me and I hit the ground for the second time in a few seconds. Strange, why did that happen… I tested putting a bit of weight on my left leg and felt it.

A nauseating feeling; entirely new for me but one that was unmistakeable. The grinding of bone on bone. Shit. I’ve broken something.

The bike had slid on a load of loose, deep gravel that had been dumped by highway maintenance ready for spreading later that day. I’d been chucked off, but I thought I was okay. My gear had protected me as I hit the ground. The problem wasn’t how I fell though. It was how the bike fell.

As it low-sided and slid the bike rotated 180 degrees, coming to rest with the saddle facing in the direction I was travelling in. Unfortunately for me, my leg was trapped under it as it spun. With no wriggle room my ankle and knee joint turned in opposite directions as I came off. Ouch.

Instantly my mind went back to first aid classes I’d done. Do I take the boot off or leave it on?! I opted for the latter, the feeling was sickening but I felt calm and clear headed, like a survival mode had kicked in. If I took the boot off and a bone was sticking out… I just didn’t want to test my reaction to seeing something like that. Now wasn’t the time to freak out or panic.

So there I was, one clearly broken leg/ankle. One heavy bike on it’s side. Middle of nowhere. This was adventure motorcycling wasn’t it… what a dream…

English…?”

My phone was still on the bike, attached to the handlebars, and wouldn’t have been damaged. I hopped over to it, stumbling and crawling the last few feet with my left leg dragging behind me. Unclipping it from the mount I checked for the precious few bars. Get in, I’d taken the great service all over Europe for granted up until now and it was there when I needed it the most.

I dialled 1-1-2. The phone started ringing and then the operator answered, hallelujah. I told them I needed an ambulance after crashing my motorbike, and I thought my leg was broken. But I was met with silence. Maybe I’d spoken too quickly? I repeated it again, slowing down a bit this time and emphasising ‘ambulance’.

“English?” 

Yes, yes, you speak English…?” I replied hopefully.

No, no, no…” And then I was put on hold.

It then started to dawn on me that I didn’t really know where I was. The wilderness hut I was aiming for was about 45 minutes away, and that was in Estonia. But I was in back country Latvia, I hadn’t seen any towns or signs for miles. I’d been down for 10 or 15 minutes by now and hadn’t seen anyone.

The size of the problem became evident when an English speaker was tracked down at the end of the line. While she got the gist of what I was saying, neither of us really knew where I was. The nearest town was Ape but I was still pretty far from that. After 5 minutes of trying in vain to explain where I was I felt myself starting to panic a bit. I told the operator I was going to press on my horn to try and see if there was anyone in the local area.

Three short beeps, three long ones. That was SOS wasn’t it? I don’t know how long I beeped away for, but eventually I heard the rumble of a truck and saw it slowly come round the corner. It was one of the highway maintenance guys. Brilliant.

I handed him my phone and he went to his cab to fetch a map. He was there for a while, and came back after hanging up, handing me the phone without a word.

“Ambulance?” I asked, he gave a thumbs up. Cool…

“Speak English?” Nope, he gave me a shake of the head and a shrug, and walked back to his cab to fetch a radio. (I learned later that the second language here was Russian, a throwback to the Soviet era that the older generation had lived through. The younger generation spoke English, but most of them moved away)

Right, well it was time to call my dad. We’d spoken before I left about what to do in an emergency, he had all my policies and documents. After a quick chat with him I left him to get the ball rolling with my travel insurance.

While he did that, more of the maintenance guys arrived. Still no English speakers though. They stood around looking at me, then pointing at the gravel and shrugging. I shrugged back, then pointed to my ankle and mimed a stick breaking. They shrugged a bit more. Cool, good chat.

These guys actually ended up being my heroes… but I’ll go into that bit later. For now, the language barrier was becoming a bit of an issue, shrugging and pointing wasn’t quite cutting it. The adrenaline was starting to wear off too, with that the pain was getting worse. And on top of all of that, my bike was still on it’s side. I wanted to get her up out of the dirt!

Crawling back over I mimed picking the bike up, and pointed at two of the bags. The guys understood it and unstrapped them, bringing them to the side of the road while picking the bike off and wheeling it to the side too. Well at least it wasn’t pissing oil or anything, I could still ride it home… right?!

I went into my tank-bag and grabbed my documents, I had a feeling I’d be needing them. After about 20 minutes an ambulance pulled up… but still no English speakers. Right, this could get tricky. Their first move was to try and yank the boot off my ankle without even unlacing it. Jesus it hurt, possibly the worst pain it had given me so far. I ended up in a tug of war with the paramedics, them trying to pull the boot off and me holding onto the top, begging them to stop.

Eventually they relented, and I unlaced the whole thing and gingerly slid it over my ankle. Right, I didn’t remember stuffing half a tennis ball down my sock when I got ready this morning, it definitely shouldn’t look like that… I laughed weakly, “It shouldn’t look like that, should it?” That was met with silence. Ah right yeah, no English, got it….

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Old school Latvian Splinting

As they started to splint it up the police showed up. I was breathalysed (0%, obviously!) and my documents were checked. In the meantime one of the workers had got a mate on the phone who spoke some English. Using my new translator I turned down the pain relief that the paramedics were preparing; I didn’t know what it was and I wanted to keep a clear head until I knew everything was sorted.

A stretcher soon appeared, and I was picked up and pushed into the back of the ambulance with the bags that had been brought off the bike.

“Wait, wait, the bike, the bike?!” I was panicking now, what was going to happen to it. The policeman smiled, mimed starting the ignition with one hand and picked up my helmet with the other. I handed the keys over, and watched him walk over to it as the ambulance doors swung shut. At that point it started to get a bit too real; the trip was over and now it was time to find out what damage I’d done to myself.

“Not so good, not so bad”

The pain wasn’t too bad, but I felt every bump of the ambulance (of which there were loads, the roads really weren’t too great). I needed to call my mum first before I took them up on the offer of pain meds though. I got the answerphone. Putting on my best cheery voice I told her briefly what had happened, emphasising a) how okay I really was and b) how little she had to worry.

Then I pointed at the syringe that the paramedic was holding and gave her the thumbs up. They were pretty strong, I was quite glad I’d asked them to hold off, and by the time my mum called back I was pretty giddy.

The ambulance ride was about 30 minutes, like I said I’d really crashed in the middle of nowhere, and by the time we arrived the giddiness was fading slightly.

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I was wheeled into the hospital and thanked the paramedics for their help. They were really sweet, and despite the language barrier the medic who stayed in the back with me had been lovely, even managing to explain her own son liked motorbikes and was living in Ireland.

Now I was in the hand of the nurses, of whom none could speak English (again). Someone mimed taking a photo of my leg and I gave them a thumbs up; X-ray time. After cutting off my sock I was wheeled into the X-ray room, leg put on a board and a lead vest laid on me to protect my future kids.

After a couple of clicks the nurse walked back into the room and did the same mime I’d done earlier that day… as if she was snapping a stick. So there we go, my first broken bone, in Latvia of all places.

With that, I was wheeled out into a ward and left in a room on my own. The final nurse to leave stood at the door, started to speak but then shrugged, gave me a pained smile and left me sat there alone. The language barrier was starting to get to me; I couldn’t speak with anyone, and no one could reassure me that everything was going to be okay (sounds childish I know, but it’s what I love so much about the nursing staff of the NHS, always cheer you up.)

After a while pitying myself I noticed my leg was left uncovered and I took a first look at my ankle. Yeah that wasn’t right, I snapped a couple of photos (which I won’t post!) of the outside bone clearly sticking out a lot further than it’s meant to.

Then a surgeon walked in who could speak English. He explained that I’d broken the outside bone (Fibula) which was what I’d seen pushing out, and possibly fractured the Tibia. He said the break was “Not so good, not so bad;” it would need surgery, but in his own words, “I don’t need to do it, get it done at home.” Right. I started to ask some questions but he raised a hand to cut me off, shrugged and left the room. FFS.

The next hour was a bit of a blur, I spoke with my travel insurance company and let my brother and sister know about the accident. I think they were pretty worried, so to show how fine I was I sent them the photo of my leg. That went down well…

Suddenly it was hustle and bustle again, and I was pushed into the next room where my word-shy Doctor and two nurses put my leg in a heavy cast. I asked him a few more questions; I didn’t really know what the deal was with travelling with a broken bone and his ‘not-my-problem’ attitude was starting to wind me up, since he was the first person I’d been able to speak to face to face since crashing.

While this was happening a familiar face showed up. One of the older highway maintenance guys, sporting an impressive ‘stache (put mine to shame), had driven all the way over to the hospital. On his way he’d picked up a mate who could speak some English. They told me that the bike was okay, it was at their depot and I could come and pick it up whenever. They gave me their number, and we found and pinpointed the bike’s location on a map. With that he shrugged again, gave me a pat on the shoulder and headed off. Like I said, heroes. Took time out of their day to come and see me (when the police could have just told me where the bike was) and looked after the bike for a week and a half for me after the accident.

With my new, shiny cast on I was moved up to a ward and a new bed with a few elderly roommates. My cast was propped up on what looked like an old, rusty ironing board and I was handed a large bottle to piss in. Sorry roomies! Then I was left alone again. It was quite late now, and I realised I hadn’t eaten since lunch that day. I was starving.

As if to answer my prayers in bopped one of the surgeons, he could speak English! He asked if I liked chicken and 30 minutes later returned with a chicken kebab, chips, bottle of coke and bunch of chocolate bars. I tried to pay him but he was having none of it, what a guy. Feeling a bit better after my feed I opened my phone again. While having a whale of a time on the painkillers I’d put a photo of the back of the ambulance on my instagram story, and now my phone was buzzing with messages from friends and family. Oops.

But it was bed time. I was exhausted and the room mates had turned the lights off bang on 10pm. Being two hours ahead, I was still getting loads of messages. Replying to them, I properly realised that my trip was now over. Ah man.

The nude Englishman

The next morning I was woken up with a lovely bowl of… something? I guess it was meant to be porridge, but it had the consistency of Mac and cheese with a far worse taste. It made NHS hospital food (gonna stick my neck out here and say it’s actually not that bad…) seem like the Ritz. I was going to be discharged today, so I really needed to make sure the hospital had provided my travel insurance with medical reports.

But first, there was something else I needed to do. I, ahem, needed the toilet… After much more miming (I’m a master of charades now) I got the message through to a nurse that the bottle wasn’t going to cut it this time, who left and returned with a wheelchair. Leaving me in the disabled toilet she gave me a thumbs up, pointed outside and closed the door.

I pulled my shorts and boxers off and started to lower myself down onto the seat using the handles when bang, the door was flung open. My nurse and another were stood at the door, staring in. Unfortunately for all involved, with both hands on the disabled handles and the toilet facing the door there was nothing I could really do to cover myself up. I gave a grim smile and they backed out, closing the door quickly behind them. I sat down, but about a minute later it was flung open again. This time there were 3 nurses. WTF?! This carried on for some time, me gesturing for them to close the door, then new faces appearing beside the nurse who’d taken me there when it opened a minute later. Finally, as I stood up to pull my shorts back on the door flung open for the last time, my largest crowd yet, all catching a glimpse of the nude Englishman. Fantastic.

Back in the safety of my bed (and boxers), I pestered the nurses using Google Translate until my Doctor relented and turned up, agreeing to speak with the travel insurance company and hand over my ‘Safe to Fly’ certificate. My dad turned up shortly after, he’d flown out the night before when it became clear that I was going to be turfed out. My travel insurance company were going to need to hire someone to take me back to Riga anyway in a car, and stay with me there, so we all figured it would be best for him to be that person.

And with that, after a typical Latvian hospital lunch, I was unceremoniously turfed out of the public hospital, without even a set of crutches. So long, and thanks for all of the borscht…

———

The next few days were hectic. Figuring out how to fly me home for my operation was a challenge in itself, despite the help of my travel insurance. And then there was the bike. But I’ll write about that another time.

It’s a shame that I can’t thank everyone who helped me properly, although I tried to at the time. The maintenance guys who found me were amazing, and their help with the bike was beyond what I would ever have expected (another story for another post). The surgeon who bought me food and acted as a translator. The paramedics who comforted me despite not being able to speak. All of the people who offered help, or put me in touch with someone who could help. And even the messages of support. When you’re sat in a hospital bed, alone with a snapped bone, having a mate or someone you haven’t spoken to in a while message you is nice.

So yeah, thanks to everyone. My first foray into adventure motorcycling has left me with a big scar, a better story and a scrapyard in my ankle. Let’s hope the next trip is a bit more… boring?

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Living my 9 year old self’s dream

I’m living 9 year old Ollie’s dream

When I was 9 years old I remember having the day off school. I’d pulled something in my neck playing football and was feeling very sorry for myself.

So, with plenty of sympathy and treats from my mum, I wrapped up in my duvet, propped my head up on a pillow sat on the front room sofa and spent the whole day glued to the tv, watching the box set of ‘The Long Way Round’.

Instantly I was hooked.

At that age I’d always been bike mad but there was something special about their trip that captured my imagination; living on the road, everything they needed strapped to two wheels and an engine, camping in the wild and travelling to places they’d never been before.

When I got into motorbiking as an adult that idea started to grow. After all I didn’t just buy a bike for weekend blats around Surrey, I wanted to go further! My first trip was with my dad around Ireland and Wales last summer for a week and a half, it was amazing but all it did was make me hungry for more…

So in January I hatched a plan over a pint with the old man. The lease on my flat would be up in summer, by then I would have done a good  two years at my job since finishing university and I was ready to travel with some money saved up. But where to go…?

I’d always fancied going around the world by bike, but I figured I’d left it too late to plan; so instead I turned my eyes closer to home and decided on a thorough, lone tour of Europe.

It’s always easy to look past Europe, lots of people my age go further afield, backpacking in South East Asia and Australia. But, the more I looked into what Europe had to offer the more my imagination ran wild.

I kept the ‘plan’ simple; the best made plans have a habit of falling apart, so why bother at all?!

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Doing my best Ewan McGregor Impression

 

I’d start in mid-July, hightailing it up through France, Belgium, Netherlands and Germany in order to catch the best weather in Scandinavia for a month.

Once I touched down in Scandinavia, I’d make it up as I went along.

Wild camping, meeting locals and taking their advice, staying on floors or sofas, the occasional hostel. My ‘plan’ has already changed with the input of others, opting to go the long way up the west coast of Norway instead of going through central Sweden (which is sadly plagued by wild fires at the moment anyway).

Once I hit the Northern most point of mainland Europe (Nordkapp), I’ll turn around and head back down through Finnish Lapland and Finland, before hopping on a ferry and heading over to Eastern Europe for the next leg!

All I needed was a bike… so taking inspiration from my heroes Charley and Ewan I bought myself a (smaller) BMW F650GS, fitted panniers, a top box, a tank bag and a roll bag and set off on Wednesday the 18th of July.

I’m writing this all as I get the ferry from Northern Denmark to Sweden, currently on my fifth day in. It’s already been the journey I wanted so far, and I can’t believe how much more there is to go!

The motorway miles weren’t the most enjoyable, but they gave me time to get used to the bike, the extra weight and driving on the continent.

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Utrecht, Netherlands

However, the long journeys and hard miles have been balanced with the lovely places I’ve stayed and the people I’ve met so far; I’ve stayed with two amazing hosts in Flensburg, Germany and Sæby in Denmark who opened up their homes to a tired biker and all of his bags. I’ve also camped by the sea in the idyllic Mols Bjerge National Park and stayed in in a hostel by the canals of Utrecht.

Next up, wild camping in Scandinavia and living life properly on the road, no luxuries. I’m living 9 year old Ollie’s dream, and it’s only just started!

Ride safe until next time,

Ollie

Rookie’s guide to: Commuting through London (or any built up city)

With soaring inner city house prices and rent more of us are living further away from our place of work. If you work in a city then you’re probably stuck on a packed commuter train or a tram every morning and evening.

So why not go by motorcycle? Break the cliché of the weekend rider, put on some more miles and make yourself a better rider.

Here are my top reasons for getting onto a motorcycle commute in the first place, and top tips for staying on while navigating some of the most difficult (extremely busy) roads you’ll face.

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Check out all that space for filtering!

Why commute by motorcycle? There’s one reason I can think of… #commutehappy

In 2014 the National Office of Statistics found that travelling to work on a motorcycle, scooter or moped is one of the least likely modes of transport to affect your mental wellbeing. For most of us this means we can commute a bit happier, but for people suffering with mental illnesses such as anxiety it could be an alternative to a horrible daily experience.

From my experience, commuting by motorcycle does help. On the days that I rode in I felt more awake, focussed and ready to go as soon as I was in the office. I also woke up, and went to sleep, easier. Waking up knowing I’m in for a ride gives me a bit of a buzz too; maybe it’s the excitement of going riding that I still haven’t shaken off yet, but early mornings don’t feel so hard.

And for me, that’s enough of a reason. Sure, it’s probably cheaper, slightly quicker and you’re on your own terms rather than getting caught in the latest rail dispute. But the main reason most of us ride is how it makes us feel, so why not experience that in the week too? So, onto the tips!

Rookie’s five top tips for motorcycle commuting.

    5. You are invisible!

Every journey keep repeating to yourself ‘I am invisible, I am invisible…’

Sadly, no matter how good we are as riders there will ALWAYS be someone distracted, or just not looking. Couple that with bus lanes that often take us past lines of traffic on the inside, or filtering taking us on the outside, and you’re going to get someone pulling out on you early into your commuting life.

On top of all of that, crashing while filtering is a bit of a grey area as far as the law goes, and at the end of the day it doesn’t matter who’s in the right when you and your bike are crumpled on the floor. You’re invisible, ride with that in mind and you’ll start to develop a sixth sense for guessing where the next bit of bad driving is going to come from.

  1. ‘Don’t Rush’ hour

Getting somewhere late is better than not getting there at all, leave yourself plenty of time!

I’m going to sound a bit like your Nan with this one, but leave with plenty of time to get where you’re going. Getting into riding in a busy city is tricky, and you’re going to find yourself in plenty of situations when you don’t feel comfortable with filtering and overtaking. If you’re in a rush, you might just chance a gap that you wouldn’t feel comfortable doing normally. And if we’re combining tips, you might forget that you’re invisible to everyone else and filter straight across a gap at a junction, as someone decides to come out of the line of traffic…

  1. Keeping your bike safe

Chains, alarms and disc locks. And this isn’t going to be ranking the 3 on which works best, this is a suggestion that you use all of them…

Chains will take slightly longer to cut through, alarms will irritate them, bring unwanted attention and are a great deterrent. Disc locks are small, easy to carry and again take time and noise to get off.

A bike covered in visible security is automatically a less attractive bike to steal. The more time and noise they make removing your locks will bring more attention, and could possibly save your bike too. Bike theft is rocketing, take the best steps to avoid being the next stat.

  1. Filtering past the four (or more) wheelers clogging the road

There isn’t a better feeling than pulling up at the lights, after cruising past a five-minute tailback heading into town. But filtering on dual-carriageways or busier roads is when it can get a bit tricky. Filtering is an art, and it takes time to learn and practice. Start off slowly, and keep to going around the outside at first. Gradually you’ll learn your limits, your bike’s limits and develop that sixth sense. Keep your speed down and keep your eyes on the mirrors a few cars in front and you’ll get the knack a lot quicker!

  1. Looking out for anything else on two wheels

There are three main groups to keep your eye on when you’re out in the city:

Mopeds and scooters: In London, they’re king. It’s best to keep an eye on the L plated delivery drivers who go to extreme lengths to beat the traffic. Their time is money, and they’re in more of a rush than you.

Motorcycles: As a beginner, it’s also best not to follow the lead of other bikers. Keep within your own limits. It’s not a race, and if you hold your road position and respect those around you you’ll be given the space you need.

Push bikes: In summer, the little box at every set of lights will be teaming with cyclists. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy cycling and think it’s a nice way to travel. But most inner city cyclists are a pain. They’ll cut you up, they’ll swerve across you to overtake a bus, or another cyclist, and the concept of a shoulder check is alien to them. Again, keep your eye out and always check down the inside before turning left!

So those are my top tips! It’s the best way to commute, and the quickest way to turn you from a fresh-faced tarmac virgin to a road weary mile-eater. But don’t take my word for it, get yourself out there and have a go yourself.

Safe riding!

Why Motorcycling?

I speed up along the rest area, past the truckers playing cards in the relative shelter of a box truck, and join the motorway. Instantly the rain drives into me again; my brief stop had given me a chance to put on my waterproof trousers which, together with my jacket, were keeping my body nice and dry. But the fine mist being kicked up by the cars around me is screwing with my vision and rapidly filling puddles give me random brake checks to see if I’m still paying attention.

Clinging to the handlebars I sit in the slow lane, watching and waiting for a dickhead, cocooned in a bubble of warmth and comfort, to cut me up without even the good grace to stick on a late indicator. My hands are freezing; my vented summer gloves doing a great job of channelling rain and water right where I don’t want it. A sports bike approaches me in the middle lane, I stick out my right foot and he gives me a cheerful thumbs up while riding by, a brief moment of solidarity on a lonely journey. Accelerating, he disappears in the mist straddled by cars.

It’s moments like that when it’s hard not to ask yourself; why motorcycling?

I’ve always been into bikes. There are plenty of childhood photos of me sat on a stranger’s bike, beaming. I still remember my first trip to Ryka’s in Box Hill, ogling the motorbikes that fill the carpark every weekend. On top of that, my Dad was a biker, and one particular photo of him sat on his Harley Tour Glide has always been in the house. I suppose it’s in the blood!

As I grew older it was made pretty clear to me I wouldn’t be getting on two wheels anytime soon. Who knows if my parents would have actually followed through with the threat of kicking me out if I did get one, but I never had the balls to try and find out. Besides, I was heading off to university, I didn’t need a motorbike there.

As third year of university rolled around I started to look to the future and my dream started coming back to me. I regularly added and removed bikes from my target list; what looked good, what was reliable, to go Chinese or to stick with something more trusted? I absorbed all the information I could, procrastinating from revision/dissertation work on my new (old) passion.

As summer rolled around I booked in my CBT for my last week at uni, and during one of the hottest days of the year I struggled (and fell, once) through my CBT course. Back in London, and with a week before I started a new job, I went out and bought a pretty looking Suzuki GZ125 Marauder from a slightly dodgy bloke in Morden.

That was it, I owned my first motorbike!

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The look of love!

After a year of riding, pushing and fixing my bike (mainly the two latter activities) I’d figured out that a) I loved biking b) L plates weren’t for me anymore and c) I needed a bike that actually worked. So I called up Advantage Training in Wimbledon, bought myself a Honda CBF 500 and after a 4 day course with two first time passes in Mod 1 and Mod 2 I found myself on the road on a big bike (albeit A2 restricted, I’m 22). Now I’m into it fully; commuting through London, road trips to the coast and planning a week-long tour of Ireland at the end of August.

I chose motorcycling for the independence and the excitement. There’s nothing better than being in the moment, not watching it through a windscreen, when travelling, even if your hands are soaked through and freezing. For me, there isn’t much to compete with the feeling you get after a good ride, luckily there aren’t many bad ones.

But navigating the world of biking also left me with a lot of questions. I’ve always been impressed with the friendly advice given to anyone who joins the ‘club. So I’ve set up this blog to share my thoughts on everything biking related. If it helps out one person I reckon it’ll be worth it!

I’ll be going over everything from the kit I use, my tips for riding in conditions/areas and road trip write ups when I’m out and about, hopefully with weekly posts.

Stay safe and check-in next week for my tips and tricks for commuting through the chaos of London!