A man on a bike posing for the camera

Cerebral palsy didn’t stop me cycling round the world

Howard’s cerebral palsy required him to make big efforts to learn to balance and walk on two legs, but he found his true calling on two wheels. Howard has now cycled across over 60 different countries, taking him from Albania to New Zealand

In this blog he tells us of his adventures and how his bike helped him live an independent and intrepid life.

The date is December 26.

The day?

My third birthday.

And lying at the bottom of the stairs? The gift that is going to change my life!

A bright red Gresham Flyer trike!

A young boy standing proudly with his bike in a black and white photo
Howard and his Gresham Flyer

Maybe a year earlier the weakness in my muscles, the lack of flexibility and co-ordination had been ascribed to my being affected by cerebral palsy.

But soon I would discover that the legs that were failing me in my struggles to stand, balance and walk would quickly be capable of pushing pedals….and they have been doing that now for six-plus decades on an almost daily basis!

Strange to say, but balancing on two wheels was to prove so much easier to accomplish than trying to do so on my two uncooperative legs! This ‘graduation’ to bicycles took place when I was about nine-years-old, but not before I had made many, many wobbly manoeuvres and rather destroyed  some privet hedges in our local park when I used them to stop myself, or just fell in!

The door to ‘adventure cycling’ had now been pushed slightly ajar but confidence and competence to ride myself into ‘unknown territory’ would yet take a couple more decades.

And so it was that very gradually my cycle commuting as a student, first in Leicester and then latterly in Glasgow was ‘spiced up’ with short adventures in Scotland and Ireland. And I must confess that it is the big dollop of uncertainty which tends to characterise my ‘roughly planned expeditions’.

A bike in front of some icebergs in Iceland
The ‘mini-icebergs’ of the Jokulsarlon, Iceland

Give me a map and I will quickly devise an adventure! My early ones took me to the Faroes, Nordkapp (the northern tip of Norway), Newfoundland, Turkey, Greece – travels which embraced me with trials and tribulations, frustrations as well as joys – but inevitably a huge store of stories and anecdotes.

My total of countries ‘explored’ by bike is now in excess of 60, including a circuit of Iceland, crossing the Canadian Rockies, New Zealand and less well known places such as Macedonia and Albania, Jordan, the Balkans at the ‘tail end’ of the war there, and many others.

Notes roughly scribbled along the way were transformed into diaries which have permitted me to relive those days on the road and nights camping wild in ‘obscure isolation’.

Howard crossing from Alberta to British Columbia, Canadian Rockies
Howard crossing from Alberta to British Columbia, Canadian Rockies

To Latvia and back (and back again)

Liepaja is a modest sized city of about 72,000 people, set on the Latvian coast some 200 kilometres south of Riga, the capital; a port and major naval base in the era of the Soviet Union.

On a very hot Sunday afternoon in August 1997 I am cycling leisurely through its quiet streets, dusty with the pollution from the massive steel works here, and following roughly the tram route leading me in from its northern boundary.

At the southern terminus, beside a sprawling but very neat and heavily tree-shaded cemetery, there is gathered a vibrantly colourful flower market. I linger here awhile, before pressing on south towards Lithuania. But before long I have selected for myself a lovely secluded spot to camp for the night, tucked in among the pine and birch trees which populate the dunes on this unspoilt coastline of fine, white-sand beaches. Nearby a gaunt watch-tower speaks of much less cheerful times!

I do not expect that I shall ever visit Liepaja again.

Almost 10 years after my ‘Baltic Odyssey’ I find myself hosting ‘V’ and ‘N’, two Latvian ladies making a very brief visit to enjoy the attractions of both Glasgow and Edinburgh. And they come from Liepaja! Not believing that I know of their home city, let alone having cycled through it, I show them my diary account, rather unflattering as it was! And also perhaps a little unfair of a place that has been struggling to free itself from its Soviet legacies.

But my brief encounter with them is to acquire a most unexpected dimension when, a few months later,  V’s daughter Anna appears in Glasgow to register to study at the University, a University that I know had made a big impression on her mother!

Family friendships develop and by the end of that Summer I am indeed back in Liepaja!

I can see that enormous changes have taken place…..and I quickly decide that they make the best confectionery I have ever tasted!!

But perhaps the biggest surprise of all is to discover that their family home is less than 10 minutes’walk from that memorable tram terminus, just where the city meets the countryside!

I have since returned a number of times and the creation of many kilometres of cycle tracks has greatly elevated it in my estimation since that first casual pedal over its bumpy, pot-holed streets!

‘Where do you think he is now?’

A photo of a bike against a desert background
Howard’s bike as he cycles through Wadi Rum in Jordan

When my mother would ask of my father ‘Where do you think he is now?’ he could only and honestly reply ‘I’ve no idea’!

But then she had at least attained her ultimate goal of getting me on my feet (in quite the literal sense!) and to live an independent life.

And now my book Pasta, Punctures and Perseverance: Diaries of Cycling Adventures is something of a ‘compendium’ of 15 of these narratives.

My hope is that it may give inspiration to others to make similar adventures too.

Royalties accruing from the sale of the book will be donated to Scope, so I’m hoping it proves popular!

So, please don’t just wonder what lies around the next corner – go and have a look – preferably on a bicycle. And don’t ‘cheat’ by interrogating Google Earth!

If you’ve been inspired by Howard’s story and are looking for more globe-trotting tales, buy his book Pasta, Punctures and Perseverance: Diaries of Cycling Adventures – and all of the royalties will go to support our work at Scope.