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The Hungry Ride

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Road-kill meat with weeds and wild apples was an unusual breakfast. I ate it over an open fire, beside my bivvy (a.k.a. bivouac), in the swirling mists of wild Dartmoor—where Sherlock Holmes met the Hound of the Baskervilles. The inmates at nearby Princetown prison were in this bleak and remote place against their will, so why did I choose to be living so extremely wild and cycling in December?

Words: Vin Cox
Images: Jojo Harper

The challenge. Nature. Fitness. Throwing life’s dice and seeking satisfaction. Facing difficulties to honor the greater adversities that some people endure. Pushing and scaring myself so much that I must totally focus on the task at hand. They’re some of the reasons.

I began this particular journey at Penzance train station, the southwesterly end-of-the-line in Great Britain, several days and hundreds of miles before this camp. In the broader sense, the journey of my 41 years got me here when previously unconnected threads of experience wove together—foraging for berries was a childhood treat that I’d developed and progressively expanded on. As a cyclist, I’d raced cyclocross as a pro in Belgium, gone adventuring and, in 2010, broken the Guinness World Record for cycling around the world in 163 days.

The cycling met the foraging after I gave a talk about how a bicycle allows us to experience as much of the world as possible in fullest detail. There were other more renowned speakers at the event and we were invited to dinner afterward where I chatted with Graeme Obree, the innovative bike designer and racing cyclist, whose personal drive inspired me to up my game, shake up my thoughts and take on more challenges. I reasoned that a cycle tour would provide the “perfect pace” and platform to try and survive exclusively on wild, foraged food.

On my first go at this kind of tour I tried to hunt with a catapult, which takes time and, generally, is neither legal nor safe in my circumstances—and I’m a useless hunter. After wasting a hungry afternoon failing to knock down a pigeon with a stone I came across a pheasant freshly knocked down by a car. Suddenly, I overcame my aversion to the idea of roadkill. It was a revelation to acknowledge that some of the death and waste on the road can be food. I am not a vegan or vegetarian, and I would hunt, but I love the ethic that this is meat from death rather than death for meat.

Foraging skills accumulate slowly, learning one safe plant or mushroom at a time with the support of books, the internet and shared experience. Mistakes can be dangerous or even fatal. Most foraging isn’t as easy as finding the apples in my breakfast—they had fallen from a tree in such numbers they made the trail dangerous and I couldn’t miss them. Gaining stealth camping experience and confidence has gone alongside the foraging, as has refining my luggage and equipment.

At its heart, my bike and I are the same: old school, steel, with cyclocross heritage. It’s a Genesis Fugio bike in Reynolds 853. You can tell so much about me from my ride: unconventional, multipurpose, reliable. The saddle pack contains my bedroll: mattress, sleeping bag and liner rolled together for speed of use. Also at the top of the saddle pack is a down jacket. In the frame-bag I have wet-weather clothing items: gloves, gators and waterproofs. My big, sharp hunting knife sits handily behind the zip in the compartment under the top tube. The clip-on aero bars do get used to tuck, but mainly they’re a platform to hold an extra water bottle and my custom popup tent. Beneath them is a customized handlebar bag where I carry my inner tubes and tools, cooking pans, lighter and other odds and ends. Behind the bars are Alpkit “stem-cells” where I have space for most of the food I gather.

From experience, I’ve deduced that hunter-gatherers through the ages would never begin a journey without emergency food supplies. This is the role I have given myself, so to be authentic to my challenge I started with small reserves of wild, foraged food that I’d personally prepared: jerky (roadkill rabbit, a.k.a. bunny biltong), dried wild mushrooms and ripe rosehips ready to have their jammy sugars sucked out when I needed a fructose boost.

I’ve learned that I can sustain myself on this kind of ride, but I will have times of hunger. When starvation kicks in, the body aches and the muscles grumble much more than the belly. I get the bonk, or hunger knock, when previously strong muscles become pathetic, my work-rate slows and my mental capacity dwindles. A misty day on Dartmoor or not, with the bonk I am veiled in a gray fog and in a tunnel. I must always peer through to spot the wild snacks that could revive me. I can graze on hedgerows, eating sorrel, dandelion, nettle-tips, primrose and occasional berries. Extra clothes are needed to maintain body heat when I’m famished, and I ration out my emergency food to remain able to ride safely.

The trick that was most helpful in securing me the road-kill roe deer in this breakfast was to watch magpies. There’s an old rhyme about these birds: “One for sorrow, two for joy.” Could that be referring to wild meat? I saw a pair of magpies stand their ground in the bushes as I rode past them, so I circled back to see what could stop them fleeing from me. Sure enough, there was a small deer that a truck had probably bounced off the road earlier that day. The magpies hadn’t even had the chance to peck its eye’s out, and it still had some warmth in its body.

Roadside butchery is a bit like wild camping. It’s best done out of sight to avoid protest or concern from passersby—I learned that with a badger! This deer was ideal because it was behind a large log, which I sat on with my back to the road so no one could see exactly what I was up to.

A hungry bike ride in the beautiful but austere English winter countryside is a challenge right at the limit of my capacity. It’s desperately hard and therefore completely engaging and ultimately satisfying. Life’s other problems are made trivial and forgotten. Sir Edmund Hillary said he wanted to climb Mount Everest “because it’s there!” This is my Everest. The possibility, the near impossibility, it dares me to try and soothes me to do. Once I had imagined this challenge, I had to face it, because it was there.

More from Jojo Harper @jojoharperphoto (Instagram) and online at jojoharper.com

From issue 63.