This is a long one. You might want to read it in a few parts.
Every now and then I will do something stupid.
I was reading a blog entry about a ride from London to Hull, it was about a test ride by Darren Franks, ahead of his TCR (Transcontinental Race), done with the intention of mimicing a day on the bike doing the type of mileage (and using the type of kit) that would be required during the TCR. 200 miles was the target distance; fairly typical of daily distance for some TCR racers.
It was an engaging read, and he and I exchanged a few words about it on Twitter, I asked him if I could steal his gpx track from Strava. He kindly agreed so I took it and set to work on modifying it for my own needs, it was great to have a tried and tested route to work off of.
The original idea for Darren was to cycle to Hull and get a train back (taking advantage of a promotional offer), but I never take the train anywhere and I didn’t have a promotional offer, either. A quick look at fares proved the train ride as more expensive than a hotel for the night. That’s when the stupid idea hit me:
“I’ll book a hotel and then ride back the next day.”
There was a certain amount of ill-thought-out logic behind this though, in that I had already ridden two rides of similar distances, without collapsing in a heap after either. My last ride of 300km was only a tad shorter than a run to Hull for me.
Also, I had started to consider using the huge amount of data that modern cycling computers put at your disposal, (instead of just logging it for the sake of it) to help with pacing. I don’t yet have power meters, but I do have heart rate, so in a most unscientific way – I had decided to stay in zone 2 (102-134bpm) where possible – that should give me a good chance of getting there without collapsing at the end, I thought.
I used the stock HR zones that had been calculated by Strava, since I guessed that those guys know a thing or two about that sort of thing and I am too lazy to look into things any deeper. Sorry.
So, it was time to stop messing about and get on with a two-day event; time to see what I had in the tank the morning after a long ride – could I do that distance again? 600km in two days? There was only one way to find out – it was time to take a chance.
I decided that the worst thing that could happen would be that I wouldn’t be able to make it back, but, at the same time; this was not an option. I had to do there and back.
In the run up to Christmas 2017, I pencilled in the 30th of December as the day to go, around family gatherings and other festive responsibilities. I would book the hotel en route, à la TCR, take minimal to no food, and the bare essentials in terms of tools and spares.
Most of that didn’t happen.
Firstly, I decided that since I was going to be staying in a hotel, I should pack something to change into, so a few clothes were in order, also a toothbrush, deodorant, etc. This would need a courier bag (and this was my biggest mistake) along with my frame bag, since I hadn’t yet bought myself a saddle pack (something like this).
With the extra available room in the courier bag, I had started to overpack. In the end I had packed too much; clothes, deodorant, toothpaste, hair wax (really? Not exactly de rigueur for TCR, is it?) – I even threw in a bottle of chain lube and a foldable tyre at the end.
It was silly; really silly.
The trouble was that individually, the bits weighed nothing and seemed too useful to leave at home. Add them all up though, and they weighed something substantial. I was too tired for logic though and just needed to get to bed. What a noob.
Secondly, neither of my kids are really too bothered about selection boxes so there were lots of spare chocolates around from Christmas – a good few of those were squeezed into my frame bag with my fore finger, poking them into spaces that weren’t really there.
I got to bed too late at about 11.00pm – I was planning on the route taking 16 hours with stops, so I thought I would leave at 4.00am, aiming to be at the hotel by 8.00pm. Shower, meal, a few drinks in the bar, a few hours kip and up again the next morning, hopefully feeling refreshed – nice!
Most of that didn’t happen, either.
At 3.15am, the alarm woke me gently and I hauled myself out of my warm bed to face over 300km, with a kilometer and a half of climbing, in the cold and wet December air.
The front door clicked shut behind me at 4.30am and I wheeled the bike out into the damp morning air, awaiting this forecast:
The rain was forecast as “heavy” for about the next two hours, but it was quite light as I stood there toying with the idea of sticking my waterproof jacket on. I decided to leave it until I needed it, rather than spend more time faffing about; I was keen to get on with it.
The good news was that I had a decent tailwind to push me off north, so I set the cranks turning and allowed myself a wry smile at the madness that I had stretched out in front of me. Time to get down to business, I supposed. It was exciting.
Six kilometers in and I stopped at a local service station to adjust my lighting wiring, which was rubbing on my leg and annoying me. I had bought a new front light for the trip (and trips beyond) and hadn’t routed the wiring quite right. With that sorted, I pulled back onto the A414 and took the steep hill down towards Harlow.
I made my way through the night streets, through Sawbridgeworth, Bishop’s Stortford, missing a turn at Harston, but bagging a pic of a beautifully lit festive house there.
Speed-wise I was, no doubt, helped by the fierce tailwind but I was trying not to overdo things in those crucial early stages. This is the test; from everything that I’ve ever read, you need to start off slowly and don’t go overdoing it if you are to make any success of long distance cycling, they say. But this is not easy, especially with a tailwind whipping you along. You do tend to take advantage of that.
I grinned to myself since the rain hadn’t lived up to the forecast and I was making the most of the tailwind with 30, 40km/h and more on the clock here and there. I was on my way to Hull, and boy, was I making good progress. I was unstoppable, I felt like a machine.
A few more kilometers up the road from Harston and I stopped at a bus shelter as my toes were numb (this is problem I get on longer rides), so I stopped to stuff a few of those selection box delights. A Double Decker was first, since it seemed apt at a bus shelter.
It wasn’t the most comfortable of bus shelters and looked like a spot that was favoured by the local drinkers. Luckily, they had finished their party, leaving more room for me. The Sun was also beginning to make an appearance.
About 4 hours in and I was just east of Cambridge when I noticed that the sun was properly up over the horizon. It was a welcome sight after hours in the dark. The warmth and light from the sun is always so welcome – it can give you such a push!
On the other hand, it also makes clear in your mind how long you’re going to be in the saddle when you consider that, at 4 hours in, you have seen the sunrise, and you will see the day through in the saddle, see the sunset, and have a few hours more in the saddle after that. So I concentrated on the sunrise, and the warmth it would soon bring!
From there on, it was up to Peterborough through St. Ives, Ramsey St. Mary’s, whilst the southwesterly wind dialled itself around to a westerly, fiercely and single-mindedly howling into the side of me and at the same time seeming to come from all angles. I’ve ridden and cursed in many a headwind but this thing was something else. The flatness of Cambridgeshire didn’t help, in that terrain, there is nowhere to hide, and this seems to go on for ever, on some of the straightest, most featureless roads you can imagine.
At some point, I was aware of an eerie whistling, a sort of high-pitched wail, and I looked around to see where it was coming from. It was a bit like the noise you get when you run a finger around the rim of a wine glass, it faded in and out.
There was nothing but flat fields; nothing in sight that could be responsible for the noise. It didn’t take long for me to realise that it was the bike, the crosswind was so strong that is was whistling through the frame or something. I soon tracked it down to the plugs on my new aero bars; they have a hole in each and as the wind blew across the holes, it made that tune! Well, it wasted a few minutes for me.
I turned left onto the B1095 at Pondersbridge and headed for Peterborough Cathedral, as Darren had done. I did think I might not bother, but I decided I wanted to see it as his photos had looked impressive.
It was indeed a treat, and I spent some time admiring it as I pushed the bike through the grounds. Beautiful.
I exited into Cathedral Square, where there was some kind of market on. I made my way through the shoppers and picked up the A15 to continue my journey. It was then that I first noticed that I had a bit of pain in my left knee. “It’ll ride out”, I told myself.
So, it was about 35km to Spalding. I’ve heard of Spalding many times when reading people’s blogs on the London-Edinburgh-London (LEL), so I thought it would be a good place to stop for the customary stuffing of food into myself, which I like to refer to as “fuelling”. Ha. Spalding was also well past the halfway point at about 170km, too.
Soon enough, I was passing through Crowland and not long after that, the River Welland appeared on my right. I knew now that I was only about 15km from Spalding. The knee wasn’t getting any better but it was bearable, so I just ignored it; there was a long way to go yet – best not to dwell on these things.
As it turned out, I carried on through Spalding without stopping, I just didn’t see anywhere that I fancied stopping at. I pulled over at the side of the road on the way to Boston and fired up Google Maps to find somewhere to eat. Bingo, we had a five star rated chippy not far from where I was, so I pushed on. I can’t remember the name of the place but once I got there, it looked shabby, despite its five star rating so I decided against it. Out with the map again and I found another fish & chip shop in Sutterton, a few more kilometers up the road and about 10 kilometers south of Boston.
With 185 kilometers clocked up, I needed to eat and rest a little – even just for 20 minutes. I also wanted to catch up on a bit of social networking, too. I needed a rest from the road.
I drew close, it was a nice looking little place, and then, this:
Burger King was a one kilometer diversion off course. I took it, locked the bike up outside and walked in, eyeing the menu. I ordered a large Whopper meal and waited patiently. I don’t usually eat in Burger King, and I was expecting something more, really I should have ordered two of them. I wolfed it down and caught up on Twitter. I also took the opportunity to load up the booking.com app and book my hotel.
The knee was now getting bad, so I popped a couple of Ibuprofen with my food, confident that they would settle the pain.
I didn’t want to leave the warm and wind free haven that was Burger King, and I nearly treated myself to seconds, but decided to push on as there was still much ground to cover.
10km later and I was in Boston, riding alongside the Maude Foster and West Fen Drains. I stopped to capture a quick shot of the Maud Foster Windmill, sat behind the Maude Foster Drain. Did I mention Maude Foster? Hitting the 200km mark, I pushed through along yet more dead straight roads.
Some of the straight sections were 10km long, flanked by dead flat terrain and yawning off into the distance where they met the horizon and vanished. The wind howled angrily and with purpose into my left side as the aerobars whistled their ghostly tune.
It was then that I noticed my right knee complaining, making my knees complain in stereo. I grimaced and got my head down. My eight hours of daylight were about finished by 4.00pm and it wasn’t long until I started lighting up.
The sun went down and darkness closed in. I had two lights on the back and two on the front. I had at least one rear light on during the daytime, the other being charged by a powerbank. Little did I know that the powerbank had disconnected itself from the light, so it hadn’t been on charge while the one in use had nearly run out. I got it plugged in quickly, but from that point on, I began to stress about losing my rear lights.
Further on, things took a turn for the worse when one of my front lights began to flicker, and then suddenly went off. I pulled over and investigated; a broken wire – nice. The Lincolnshire Wolds were coming up and I would need my remaining light set fairly high. There was still 80km to go and I wondered if it would last.
I managed to rig up a repair on the faulty light, but it kept flickering and cutting in and out, so I ended up disconnecting it altogether. I overshot a left turn that would lead me to what I knew was a road who’s surface would deteriorate, according to Darren’s blog, so I broke quickly, U-turned, and took the road, interested to see how bad it became. The Wolds loomed ahead.
The two knees were now beginning to complain quite loudly as the steeper parts of the route got underway. I knocked the gears down and span gently, preserving my knees as best I could.
The next 50km was a bit of a blur. Hunger, pain and tiredness had begun to take their toll. I was also fretting about the lighting situation and kept having to stop and peer round to see if I was still lit up. The Wolds were dark, cold and served up some unforgiving gradients at points. Traffic was light with the very occassional car passing.
I remember my older brother ringing me at one of my lower points, I hadn’t felt my feet for miles due to the cold, and I was weary and feeling worn down. I answered with a cheery “Hello” and we discussed something, but I can’t remember what. Then came the question: “Where are you?” “I’m just out on the bike”, I said. “You’re mad”, he said, and it was at that point that I told him I was just east of Grimsby. He couldn’t believe it, but this is the sort of reaction I get from most of my friends and family since I have chosen to ride longer distances. They don’t get it.
The next couple of hours saw plenty of texts from my wife appearing on the ELEMNT: “Are you there yet”, “Where are you now”, I duly pulled over each time, dug the phone out of my pocket and updated. Somehow, time had slipped away from me.
Eventually, and it seemed to take an age, I saw signs of the industrialised areas close to the River Humber, and, now and then, the bridge swung into view. It was a welcome sight.
The Humber Bridge is amazing. Its incredibly long and you have a dedicated cycle lane to enjoy as you cross it. It seemed to just go on and on, the river is just amazingly wide. It was getting late now, at around 9.30pm and I had the place all to myself.
After traversing the bridge, there was the small matter of negotiating my way off the cycle lane and back onto the roads. This took longer than planned as I faffed about to-ing and fro-ing and getting things wrong. I ended up taking an unlikely route through a wooded area, generously coated in mud and asked a couple of guys walking a dog how I could get back to the road to hell, erm, I mean Hull, obviously. Their northern accents confirmed that I had indeed ridden a good distance that day. I grinned to myself and reeled in the last 10km or so to the hotel.
I made my way into the hotel lobby, knees complaining, spattered with mud, tired, dishevelled and, no doubt, a bit smelly. The guy at reception seemed to be ready for me to ask where the nearest whatever was, so I surprised him with “I have a reservation; what time does the bar close, please?”. I hot footed it off up to the room and put things on charge for the morning. Lots of things, that is.
I showered, changed and went down to the bar and the barman was kind enough to knock me up a couple of sandwiches. I had one beer and the bar closed. Bummer.
So, it was off to bed at about 11.30pm but by 2.30am, I was awake. Why? I got up to look out of the window and my knees had completely stopped working. They had siezed up, it was agonising trying to straighten them out. This was not good. My dreams of a 600km ride over two days were over, it would seem.
After 15 minutes of gentle flexing, my knees regained some sort of order, but they weren’t good. Had I broken my bloody knees? It was a 300km ride, I had done this before, why had this happened?
I had no idea, but I knew there and then that there would be no ride at 4.00am, which was when I had planned to leave. I was quite dejected. I reset the alarm to 9.00am but woke at 8.00, knees still bad and needing some coaxing to move again.
I delved into the world of trains on my phone and got myself booked onto a train to Doncaster, and then a connection to Kings Cross. I did ask the hotel if I could check out late, avoiding a lengthy wait at the station, but they were too busy – it was New Year’s Eve.
I left the hotel and actually used the chain lube I packed last minute (if you can remember that far back), to revitalise my dry-as-a-bone transmission. It did make me smile.
The Golden Arches was just a short hop down the road, and since I had hours to waste, I locked the bike up outside and ventured in, soon devouring my high calorie breakfast (not that I ever worry about calories) while I looked out of the window, pitied my knees, and thanked goodness for trains.
So, it was 10km to the Station and a long wait for the train to Doncaster. I got chatting to a guy about my bike and he said he commuted regularly by bike in the summer. During the winter, he swam (but not as part of the commute, I don’t think). It passed the time for a while, but he was gone soon enough. I settled in on the station for a long wait.
Eventually, the train arrived and I wheeled the bike on, praying that there would be storage for it on the first come, first served basis – there was. The guy opposite me took up all of the room for the cycle storage by stretching his legs out over it, so I took the seat opposite and crammed myself behind my bike – the knees complained loudly but I was just glad to be on a train and not have three hundred kilometers to ride on my bike with those same knees.
We pulled off and the train quickly gathered speed. I looked out of the window and smiled at the ease with which I travelled. Most of the people on that train had no idea whatsoever of the comfort they enjoyed. The guy opposite me eyed me suspiciously as I sat cramped up while he stretched his legs over the cycle storage.
Doncaster arrived and I hopped off the train with only a short time to find my connection, get a pass for the bike (eh? I know), and load up for the final leg to London. Wearing bib tights and a cycling jersey and wheeling a road bike along the platform got me my fair share of attention from the early New Year revellers and I exchanged “Happy New Year” with many – it was nice, and what a change from London, though I do love London dearly.
A member of staff helped me out in getting directions for my bike pass, such a friendly guy and typical of the people I had met on my adventure north. I bagged my pass, found my platform and waited, cooled by the bleakness of Doncaster Station but warmed by the people on it.
I loaded the bike into the dedicated carriage and found my seat. It was warm, so warm, and so comfortable. I had Nothing but Thieves through my headphones and enjoyed the unbridled warmth and comfort. I closed my eyes and drifted in and out of sleep all the way back to Kings Cross.
It was back out in the cold. I decided to get out of London a bit and headed for the familiar east end, where I caught a tube home. My wife met me at the station and I loaded the bike into the car for the short journey home. My daughter was waiting for me as I got in, my son was up in bed. I hugged my daughter, I hugged my wife, and my love for my family overspilled; it was good to be home. We then set to work on welcoming in 2018. The road to Hull had been conquered; my first real adventure. I had done it.
Although I didn’t achieve what I set out to, (600km in 2 days), I have learned to take some good from my ride to Hull. Firstly, when I loaded up the numbers for my ride, I soon saw perhaps why my knees had decided to cut my journey short. You will remember that I had decided to stay in zone 2 for a chance of completing the task. In fact, I spent a whopping 40% in zone 3, and that’s 5.75 hours.
Compare this to my next longest ride of 304km, with only 3.25 hours in zone 3, which I felt much better at the end of:
And I think the difference is clear. Maybe there are other factors, but this is what I will concentrate on during my next long ride; keeping that heartrate down. I also think that I need to take more breaks, even if its ten minutes at a garage now and then. Do feel free to school me in the comments though.
I took a lot from the ride, it was a massive learning experience in many ways. Funny how a linear route on unfamiliar roads seems so much more exhausting than a circular route on familiar ones. You also have the charging of lights to organise, regular food stops in places you have never been, that are far from home.
Thanks for reading – next will be another ride of similar distance with more attention paid to heartrate and feeding. I do like feeding.