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Setting the wheels in motion

When she is not studying with The Open University, Penelope Weir cycles across Europe, Australia and New Zealand for charity. Rebecca Ford reports

They don't see many grandmothers wearing tight lycra shorts in remote Sardinian villages. Fewer still that are cycling alone across the island. So it wasn't surprising that Open University graduate Penelope Weir created a bit of a stir whenever she stopped for a breather in the local cafés. "They couldn't help staring at me," she laughs. "They thought I was out of my head."

For Penelope, who graduated this year with a 2.1 in Humanities, crossing Sardinia was just part of a journey that took her right across Europe. It was one of an impressive series of gruelling cycle rides that she's made around the world. Yet had it not been for The Open University she might not have done any of them. "The OU was certainly instrumental in my taking up cycling. It made me want to try new things. Before that I'd never done more than cycle the odd five miles with the dog."

Penelope, 66, began her degree 11 years ago and found that the mental challenge of studying soon triggered a desire to meet physical challenges as well. After pottering around in remote Rothiemurchus in Scotland, she took time off every winter to study or travel. "I took my first trip after my foundation course. I was separated and there was nothing to stop me, so I spent three months travelling across America. I went with a group, cycling around 60 miles a day and camping at night. I discovered that long-distance cycling gave me an opportunity for reflection. I got completely hooked."

Penelope's next trip was a charity ride and even more ambitious. She travelled down the "right hand side" of Australia and through much of New Zealand: a total of 3,500 miles. This time she went alone. "I met up with a friend at one point and we cycled together for a bit, but I was by myself most of the time. I camped out at night and cycled around 50 to 60 miles a day. Because I wasn't staying in plush hotels I met several groups of Aborigines along the way - you meet more people travelling alone."

She also raised around £2,000 in sponsorship for the Badaguish Outdoor Centre, Glenmore, a charitable organisation close to her home. It specialises in offering respite activity holidays for people with special needs. "They used the money to buy some specially adapted bikes - it was very satisfying," she says.

After devoting the next year to her studies, Penelope took off again, this time to New Mexico. "I spent a lot of the time in Santa Fe, taking day trips of around 20-50 miles in length. The weather was terrible. It was below freezing most of the time and I became exhausted." Not surprising really; she was over 60 by then. However, the trip still had its benefits. "I saw ancient rock art and was riveted by the Indians' traditional crafts. It influenced the type of pottery I produced when I returned to Scotland."

Her next Open University course was Renaissance Europe and, to the concern of her children, it inspired yet another journey. "I wanted to see the places I'd read about, to understand them for myself." She packed her tent and set off through France, Corsica and Sardinia, then crossed to mainland Italy and eventually finished up in Greece. The terrain was harsh and mountainous and Penelope found it tough going. "But it was worth it just to see places I'd studied." She was particularly struck by the Renaissance city of Urbino. "I would never even have heard of it had it not been for my course. Seeing it for myself meant that everything I'd learned became more meaningful."

One of the hardest parts of the journey was cycling through the remote mountains of Greece. "I was tense all the time. It was very lonely and I had to push myself hard to keep going. Sometimes I didn't think I'd make it. Local people thought I was crazy. One woman asked: 'Why don't you just take a bus?' I couldn't explain. I just knew I had to do it - I'd set myself a challenge that I felt I had to meet."

Reaching Athens was a moving moment. "I cried when I saw the Acropolis. I asked the guards to take a picture of me by my bike. I spent days exploring and was so overwhelmed by what I saw that I wanted to know even more. I studied 5th century BC Athens when I returned."

The European trip was Penelope's last before she graduated earlier this year. The punishing journeys have begun to take their toll on her body and she was recently diagnosed with polymyalgia which causes pain in her joints. But she's not giving up cycling. "I'm on steroids now and they're helping me, so I'm going on an organised trip to Thailand this autumn for three weeks."

And she's not going to sit back and take it easy after that. "I'm thinking of downsizing my house and taking off for a year to cycle around the world. The OU's made a huge difference to me. I'm more confident and have a more enquiring mind now. I'd like to do more studying too."