Jules Hobson shared with us her story of experiencing the most devastating loss when Gareth, her new husband, and best friend of a decade, died on a climbing trip only eighteen months after their wedding. To cope with his death, she embarked on a year of cycling adventures which she now shares with us.
I thought of some of the things that had been on mine and Gareth’s “list" of adventures to do together at some point. It needed to involve the things that were helping me; riding my bike in cool places, spending time with friends and not being in the same place for too long. It needed to be a journey.
So my first ‘coping’ challenge was to ride from Lands End to John O Groats off-road, covering the 1300 miles and 140,000ft climbing in 23 days.
Lots of friends were kind enough to come along for a day or two’s riding to support me, or offer me food and somewhere to stay, and despite horrendous weather and track conditions, (and it being the hardest physical thing I had ever done), I somehow made it to the end.
It was an incredible journey for many reasons, and I had time to think a lot during the many hours of pedalling (or pushing!)
Life after LEJOG
The hardest part of the whole challenge was finishing it, and realising that Gareth wasn’t there at the end to meet me. My world hadn’t suddenly repaired itself while I’d been away and ultimately I was still in the same situation as when I set off. But something had changed. My confidence had received a little boost. I knew I would be able to go on.
So from there I decided to tick off another personal goal that I’d said I’d always do; riding a 24-hour solo mountain bike race.
Having ridden Mountain Mayhem a few times in a team, I knew it was a fun event, and at a month after I’d finished the LEJOG I hoped I’d be recovered enough to race. The only problem would be if it rained, when the course at Eastnor Castle famously turns into something resembling the Somme when several thousand riders have ridden over its clay-like mud multiple times in the rain.
As it happened, I turned up to the race to find it was raining heavily – so heavily in fact that I had to get my van towed onto the camping field as it was already so muddy!
The course deteriorated predictably and as such, the race was more a test of mental determination and who was prepared to suffer the longest than a test of speed, riding skill or fitness. At times, even pushing was out of the question as the tyres would pick up so much mud they would eventually no longer go round, and carrying was the only option.
Thanks to a combination of a great support team, fitness from the LEJOG, and plenty of practice at enduring long nights of feeling very low, I somehow managed to be the person willing to suffer the longest, and won the women’s solo category. I pretty much decided there and then to end my 24-hour solo career while on a high!
Next up was a summer in the Alps. Gareth and I had spent many long summers in the French Alps, biking and climbing together, and it has always held a special place in my heart. The Megavalanche was a race we had always wanted to do together, and so it seemed as good a time as any to tick it off.
The Mega is unlike any other race I’ve ever done. It is such a ridiculously insane and dangerous concept of a race, that it is actually brilliant.
Let several hundred riders line up, at 3500m, on the snow, at the top of a black ski run on a glacier, and send them straight down all at the same time, all the way to the Valley below. Carnage. Gareth would have loved it.
I felt really nervous before hand. There is a kind of self-confidence that I used to have when Gareth was alive, that only comes from knowing you always have someone there to fall back on and help you out when you need them, no matter where or when. But, I was lucky to have my friend Tom there and he encouraged me hard.
Amazingly, I survived the race unscathed, and the tears I quietly shed at the top, wishing Gareth had been there too, weren’t noticed by too many people thanks to my full-face helmet.
I wasn’t the fastest person there, but several months of riding every day meant that I was one of the few people sprinting on the uphill sections! I can still recall now – a year on – the feeling of total, full body exhaustion and exhilaration that I felt at the end. It was a completely unique experience, and one day I’ll ride it again.
From there I persuaded Tom to come and ride from Chamonix to Zermatt with me. We took 5 days to ride the route we’d planned. It was a real adventure, carrying all our kit, bivvying in some brilliant spots where we could wake up to stunning mountain vistas each morning, washing in icy cold alpine streams.
Tom and I rode some great trails, ate a lot of pizza, and came back tired but feeling like we’d had a much bigger trip than just 5 days. It was incredibly hard accepting Gareth wasn’t there with us on the ride, but several times I would see or feel or remember something that made me think that although I couldn’t see him, he was definitely somewhere near in spirit.
After my summer of adventures, it started to dawn on me that at some point I was going to have to go back to work, and figure out a way to support myself again long-term.
The thought of returning to Sheffield, and trying to pick up the remains of our old life was terrifying; same job, same house, same daily routine, but no Gareth. I knew I couldn’t face it.
I also didn’t think I could cope with a ‘normal’ job. I needed to find something to do that I truly loved, something that I looked forward to going to work each day, and didn’t spend the whole week counting the days down to the weekend.
Mountain Bike Guiding seemed like the perfect answer, and although a little apprehensive about whether I was good enough or confident enough to be a guide, I had started working my way through the Mountain Bike Leader training scheme earlier in the year.
By October, I was ready to start looking for jobs. I decided that trying to find a job somewhere new, with no memories attached would be a good plan, and a way to start building a new life.
After several applications, I accepted a job in Tenerife. So I spent the winter in the sun, riding my bike down dry and dusty trails, meeting some great guests, and generally feeling like I’d made the right decision to spend the winter in the sun when I heard repeated reports of the long cold, wet winter back at home.
Significant dates came and went – a year since Gareth died, Christmas, my birthday, our wedding anniversary. But on each of those days I tried to be busy doing something fun, remembering it in the way I know Gareth would have wanted.
Other challenges followed when I returned from Tenerife, as I’m sure they will continue to do for a long time. In March I completed the Cape Epic, an 8 day stage race in the Western Cape region of South Africa. That was followed by a 3 day point-to-point ride around the Lakeland 200 with friends.
Every time one event finishes, it feels tough knowing that life hasn’t gone back to normal. But Gareth will never come back and our old life together repair itself, so I just have to keep always thinking of new things to aim for, and never look too far ahead.
A life of adventure
Keeping busy is key. It’s when I stop that I feel the emptiness where Gareth should be, and so by filling my life with challenges and new adventures, always planning something to keep focused on, I can keep going and stay positive.
I suppose I’m searching for experiences that give meaning and a purpose to my life, something I never had to do when I was with Gareth.
Right now I’m in a particularly beautiful part of southern France, having just started guiding the route of the Trans Provence race for the summer, feeling very privileged to have the opportunity to do so.
The trails are some of the most incredible I have ever ridden, the people I’m working with, and for, are brilliant fun, and equally as passionate about bikes and riding as I am, and I feel as happy here, doing what I’m doing, as I know I could be right now.
This is the first place I feel like I’m happy stopping in since I lost Gareth. He would be very jealous, but also proud, and my only wish is that he could be here riding these trails with me.
I miss Gareth, his love, support, friendship, smiles, laughter and personality every single day, more than I could ever describe. I won’t ever forget him, and often I can picture his face, his voice, the things he’d be saying or doing in certain situations, so clearly, it’s like he’s really there.
It still scares me to think of a future without him, and the uncertainty of what it might bring. Gareth made me feel safe, and life felt secure. But I have learnt that since I can’t predict the future, it is best to try not to worry too much about it, and to live in the present as much as possible, one adventure at a time.
I am thankful for every opportunity that arises, and try and seize every moment and chance for experiences that make me glad to be alive and lucky to have the life I do.
I try and ensure I have no regrets, follow my dreams, and never settle for doing something that doesn’t make me happy, because I am worried what other people will think if I do. I think Gareth would be pretty proud of that.
It’s all about the bike
There’s a paragraph I wrote down from a book by Rob Penn ‘It’s all About the Bike’, which I had read just before setting off on my LEJOG. Rob and his family kindly let me stay with them one night while on my trip, and rode with me for a couple of hours the following morning.
Every time I read the paragraph it makes me cry, but also smile, because Rob has put down in words, far more eloquently than I ever could, exactly how I feel when I am riding my bike at the moment.
At times when I’m feeling really low, I take out this paragraph, written on the back of a photo of Gareth riding a massive jump in Whistler, and read it to myself to remind me why I’m doing what I’m doing:
The Bicycle saves my life every day. If you have ever experienced a moment of awe or freedom on a bicycle. If you’ve ever taken flight from sadness to the rhythm of two spinning wheels, or felt the resurgence of hope pedalling to the top of a hill with the dew of effort on your forehead.
If you’ve ever wondered, swooping bird-like down a long hill on a bicycle, if the whole world was standing still. If you have ever, just once, sat on a bicycle with a singing heart and felt like an ordinary human touching the Gods, then we share something fundamental.
We know it’s all about the bike.
Thanks Rob, pretty much sums it all up really!