Post subject: Re: My next challenge
Posted: Sun Jun 23, 2013 8:00 am
John O’Groats to Land’s End by Bicycle
I’ve been promising I’ll write this for several people, so here goes; don’t expect too much from me though, as much of it was a blur, for reasons which may, or may not become clearer as I document this!
I’ve done a few challenges in my life, and over the past few years, I’ve been doing one every year or two; finding something that pushes me and gets me out of my comfort zone. I’m not sure why, but it’s something I do, and I often regret it once I’m actually in the midst of the challenge.
John O’Groats to Land’s End (or the reverse route) is an iconic route in UK cycling, and indeed, has some fame in the international circuit too. The thought of doing it for me came about as a result of having ridden around the mainland on a 90cc bike, then having effectively walked coast to coast when I did the Hadrian’s Wall path a couple of years ago. All that remained was the ‘inbetween’ route, and it seemed logical to do it on the ‘inbetween’ mode of transport, if you see what I mean. A bit of idle web searching for routes and methods turned up the Deloitte Ride Across Britain, a mass-participation event over nine days. All the logistics sorted, thinks I, and signed up.
Nine days, a proposed 982-mile route, and camping every night. No luggage to worry about as that would all be shifted by truck every day. No worries, right? I set about training as best I could, out on the weekend in all sorts of weather throughout winter, and when the weather became too horrendous, I was putting in the miles on the turbo trainer instead. Let me make this clear; I am not a cyclist, or at least, not a ‘proper’ cyclist. I weigh too much, I’m no good at climbing, and by the time the ride started the longest single day mileage I had got under my wheels was just shy of 70 miles, and even that was about 50 before lunch and another 20 or so afterwards! Hill climbing practice consisted of finding hills and riding up them, though my location is fairly flat, and though some of the hills were fairly steep, they were all pretty short! Onto the ride….
We arrived at the base camp on the Friday afternoon, a mass of tents and marquees, astonishing in its scale. ID bracelet and water bottles issued, tent allocated. Find the bike. It had been couriered up the week previously and beed some reassembly. Flat tyre – I’d changed the tyres to puncture resistant ones the night before I dropped it with the couriers, and clearly I’d pinched the tube. Damn it. Oh well, get some food (which was abundant) and a cuppa, then get it changed. Not the most auspicious of starts, but sorted.
After a briefing, lots of anxious-looking people sloped off to their tents, and tried to sleep. For myself, sleep was elusive, coming only in fits and starts. Lots of nerves and no way of using up that nervous energy, plus the fact that being way up north, it gets little more than dusk even the wee small small hours, ensured that I wasn’t the only one.
Here’s where it gets a bit vague. Here’s the routine: Eat (lots!), cycle. eat, cycle, eat. cycle. Eat whilst cycling too. Then get back, shower, eat even more, listen to the briefing, get Garmin and phone charged, grab a massage or see the physios if time permits/necessity demands, then bed. Sleep for a few hours, and repeat. Nine times, with more or less eating dependent on how many miles are on the cards/ how many hills there are.
Of course, I’m oversimplifying things, but days did begin to blur into one another. In Scotland, the mornings started out grey, but got warm and sunny as the rides went on. I even started to get some nice razor sharp tan lines. On the first day out I joined one of the chaperoned groups, 11-13mph, alledgedly. I figured going at a speed that was slower than my usual training pace would allow me to keep going for longer. However, I was soon dropped, as the pace was way over the 11-13mph it was supposed to be. Even though I’d been dropped, I did the first twenty miles in 1 1/2 hours, a 15 mph average, so who knows what their average was! I begun to doubt my ability to complete this thing – if I was being dropped by the slowest groups, what hope did I have? On the plus side, I fell in with two other guys who were riding at a similar pace to me, and I stuck with them for most of the remaining days (though one was pulled out on day 6 when his knee gave way in style!). Day one was completed, all three of us completed our first 100-milers, now to do it seven more times, with a 93-miler as the cherry on top.
Plenty of hills and beautiful Scottish scenery. A slow crawl up, then hammer down the ones with the more open roads. Up and over Glen Coe on day three, I think. A low gear grind for about five or six miles. Easy for the ‘proper’ cyclists, considerably harder for us slow buggers. Day after day and it begins to wear you down. The fast ones get back, shower, and loaf about recovering for hours. The back half/third of the field however, well, we were out for ten to thirteen hours, and as discussed above, all there’s time for is a shower, food , briefing, and bed. By the final three days I was physiacally and mentally knackered, and said three days in the west country are probably the hardest of the lot. I’m not ashamed to say that a few of the steepest hill s beat me and I had to walk; it was either get off or fall off! I heard 23% being bandied about. Felt vertical to me. The weather had turned on us as we entered England; showers (some the heaviest I’d seen, let alone ridden in!), cooler temperatures and a persistent headwind all started to make things a damn sight harder. The water got into my Garmin Edge 800 anbd totally goosed it. This pissed me off. I’m still trying to dry it out enough toretrieve the rides I completed, but for four days or so I had no mileometer, so was riding blind.
Day 8. My waterloo. The day before had been a long one- 120+ miles and lots of hills, and though me and my mate had completed it much quicker than expected, IU think I’d pushed myself too much. Today I struggled up hills, everything hurt, and I begun to lose the mental battle. I convinced myself I wanted to be swept up by the broom wagon. I got a bit emotional, thinking I’d come so far, only to have failed. I told my mate not to wait in case he got swept up with me. Getting to what I thought was the summit of a hill, only to see it went up again, began to destroy me mentally. And it happened time after time after time. Somehow I got myself to the first pit stop. I ate some food, had a think. I was still wretched, and feeling sorry for myself. Then as some riders left the stop, I heard one of the stewards say ‘only three pit stops left, guys, that’s all’, and something clicked. One stop today, two tomorrow. I perked up a bit. I was still physically hammered, by the mental battle was being won. I got back on the bike and started turning the pedals. Eventually I ended up in a small train with a group of guys, one of whom was an ex-England prop forward, great for sheltering behind out of the way of that damn headwind! All being bigger lads, we all crawled slowly up, and dropped like a stone on the other side! We even stopped at a pub and had coffee, the attitude being that ‘we’re going to be late anyway, so what difference does it make’? We arrived at the final base camp at about 7.40pm, about 12 1/2 hours after we’d left, but we got there, we weren’t last, and my mood was much improved. One more day, that was all, and I now knew that, barring catastrophic injury, I was going to complete it.
The final day. I missed my mate as he left in the morning. His schedule was tighter than mine as he had to make sure he caught the shuttle bus to get to Bristol airport in time for his flight home, I only had to get back to Penznace for the sleeper train, and if I missed the shutlle, then a taxi was an option as it was only a few miles up the road!
It rained. A lot. There were hills. The descentswere nasty, down single lane, hedge lined roads, speed not an option for any but the Kamikaze (one such kamikaze did do a head on into a car, he was unhurt, but his bike frame snapped into several parts! He went back to the final pit stop and borrowed a spare bike from the mechanice who were on duty throughout the ride. He finished, I’m told (and probably before I did!)
Sometimes I rode alone, sometimes I tagged onto small groups. All I cared about was getting to the end. For some reason, on one of the few main roads we rode that day, the nosie of the car tyres on the wet syrface really began to annoy me, and I was cursing them as they passed. Go figure! The wind was more a crosswind until towards the end of the ride, when it became a tailwind for the first time in what seemed an age. Didn’t help up the last three vicious hills in the last ten miles or so! I only walked one, mind, and that’s because it was a in a busy residential street and I figured the way I was wobbling about, sooner or later I was going to end up on the wrong end of a car!
The last few miles were painful. They seemed long. When I saw a tourist sign saying ‘Lands End, 4 miles’ I thought ‘nearly there’! After what seemed like ten miles I came across another say 3 3/4 miles! It’s all relative!
Then there was the finish line. A good crowd had formed, clapping us all in. I was briefly emotional, then just numb. I got my pasty and coffee from the shop, received my finishers medal (nothing valuable in material terms, but worth oh so much to me!), had my photo taken at the sign, then off went the bike, and off went me to shower and organise getting home. Now it still isn’t sinking in, despite the congratulations from friends and family.
For nine days I was living in a strange bubble where I was rubbing shoulders with ex rugby internationals, Olympians and Paralympians, where all I did was eat sleep and ride a bike. I hadn’t read a paper or heard the news, or had much contact with the ‘real world’. Suddenly I was on a train heading home. Very odd.
The highs: The scenery, the feeling I got when I crossed that damn line each day, the camraderie. Sleeping in a tent in the middle of Aintree racecourse. The endless supply of food at break, pit stops and the evenings. The fantastic mobile showers that were always hot, and the queue were usually mercifully short. The primary school kids cheering us into the first pit stop at the base of Shap fell.
The lows: My bad morning. The bloke on a stolen motorcycle in Bristol who was interfering with riders while another tit in a car filmed it, and even pulled one rider off, who ended up in A&E with facial injuries (he was back on the bike the next day though, I believe). The rain and the headwind. The endless hills. The neverending calls for hand sanitizing (to prevent any bouts of illness that might apper from spreading through the camp), the noise the sanitizer dispensing machines themselves made. The sound of tent zips. Really dodgy road surfaces, because of all the minor roads we took,.
The list of lows is big, but the highs outweighed them tenfold in real terms. Next year, the route is south to north, and it will be in September. If I were a better climber, I’d do it again in a heartbeat, but as I’m not, it’ll be something that’ll stew away for a few years. Never say never though.
I’ve got trapped nerves in my back and a touch of carpal tunnel syndrome which has left one hand a bit weak, and my thumb and first three fingers on the other hand pretty much numb. I’m seeing an Osteopath in the hope of getting it sorted – it isn’t pleasant, but it’s nothing fatal or incurable, and I’ll get over it!
There you go, a very condensed account of the hardest thing I’ve ever attempted!