It was the 5th of May, 2018; this was a ride that I had been waiting for for a long time. I can remember booking it on the Audax UK website and wondering if I would ever complete it, 400km is a long way. True, you start on the very edge of London, and just about dip your toe in Wales, but it is still London-Wales-London, and you have but 27 hours to complete it.
Legends Jasmijn Muller, Darren Franks and Chris Herbert were in, as were Tony Dodsworth and James McDougall, two very well respected long-distancers that I know from Twitter – I was looking forward to meeting them all, or even just riding the same event as these guys. It felt serious. So, this would be my first 400km ride, a good 80km more than I had ever ridden before, and this would be a non-stop event.
After the broken knees of Hull, I was planning to really take my time on this one, I wanted to emerge from it ready to ride again, so it was all about taking it easy. I had 27 hours to do it, so I aimed for that, giving me what I thought would be an easily achievable average speed of 15km/h, including control point stops, and stops for food and drink. 15km/h is very slow, even by my standards. I was going to use heart rate zones to pace myself with, using my ELEMNT to keep an eye on which zone I was in. I thought I’d hop between Z2 and Z3, but mostly keep to the top end of Z2.
The weather forecast was perfect and I wanted to enjoy the sights and sounds, so I had promised myself that this would not be a race. Winds were light and MyWindSock was even promising tailwinds on a more-or-less equal footing with headwinds.
So, I had a hotel booked in nearby Slough and that would be my base for the night. I’d have an early morning alarm for the day of the ride, so I was keen to get some sleep. Of course, this didn’t happen as I had a bit of last minute route planning to do and an important email that I had to send. Also, there was dinner to be arranged and I had left the house later than planned in the first place (as usual).
I checked in and threw my stuff into the room before heading back out to find food. A takeaway up the road had an awesome variety of indian food to choose from. I got a feast for about £6.00 and headed back to the hotel where I wolfed it down during emailing and route tweaks, together with a couple of beers that I had raided out of the fridge before leaving home earlier – nice, they went perfectly with my curry.
I opened all of the windows, since hotel rooms are always too stuffy for me and I went to bed. It was too noisy to sleep as there was a wedding anniversary party at the hotel and the guests were enjoying themselves out and around the place. I closed one of the windows and tried to get my head down. Midnight rolled by and the 4.00am alarm call drew near. And there it was, a brief moment later, so it would seem. I rubbed my eyes and got out of bed, dressed, had a coffee and checked out of the hotel. I jumped into the car and headed for the start point, where I parked up, paid my parking ticket and started to assemble the bike.
hang on, is that Darren Franks?
I scanned the car park for a familiar face but I didn’t recognise anybody. No matter, I got chatting to the guy next to me as we rushed to get ready. Time had once more slipped away from me. He was off, I faffed, then went searching for Chalfont St. Peter Community Centre, from where the ride was to kick off. I saw a guy riding on the other side of the bushes to me and our paths soon converged so that I was behind him. He was tall, and he looked good on the bike, as some people do; “hang on, is that Darren Franks?” We pulled in front of the community centre and I realised that I had left my money in the car – damn. He was side on to me now and I recognised him and his ride, seen so many times through his blog and through social media. I thought I would hot foot it back to the car and return before the ride started, to say hi to him – alas, they were all off too soon. I smiled to myself, assured that I would catch him later, ha ha ha.
So, it was off to get my brevet card, and a quick photo before I left on what was to be an epic journey for me.
CP1 was around 72km away in Woodstock, north east of where I was, so I got going. It was colder than I had dressed for and I started to wonder if I should dig out some warmer gear. I glanced down at my bike computer and I was a bit shocked to see it was showing 2ºC. I pressed on, knowing that the sun would be warming things soon and I would then be removing layers, not adding them.
A couple passed me and we said hello – I was so chilled out that I let them go and just enjoyed the ride – it was really nice to take things this easily. This was about distance and mental stamina for me; there was no need to rush so long as I kept an eye on my average speed and didn’t spend too long at controls.
There were some beautiful places en route to CP1, and at around the 50km mark, I found myself in the picturesque village of Stanton St. John. I took the climb up into the village and there was a cyclist up ahead of me that crawled off around a bend as I stopped to tweet a photo of this picture postcard scene:
The distance passed easily enough, there was some gentle climbing over The Cotswolds, passing through Great Missenden and out towards Thame and Kidlington, around 60 odd km in.
I was feeling good, my pace was good enough at about 18km/h, with loads left in the tank. I was planning to open things up a little bit as I moved on, just to gain a bit more time at the controls, or wherever else I decided to stop. Then disaster struck. 65km in as I pulled into a service station to swap route sheets since CP1 at Woodstock was now nearby and on the next sheet. To get the route sheets off, I needed to take the ELEMNT off, so I popped it on the aerobar pad. After arranging the route sheets, I set off, forgetting to put the ELEMNT into its mount. The lights changed, I pulled away and heard something drop on the floor, followed by a cracking noise. It had fallen off, and the guy behind me had driven over it – not good. Little did I know, but this would be the pivotal point around which my first serious ride would begin to unravel.
So, this was a mess – no way to monitor heart rate, no navigation, no idea of distance between turns on the route sheets; what to do?
I pulled the mobile out and fired up Google Maps, which I only use if I really need to, due to privacy concerns (I know). A number of bike shops appeared, and I phoned a few of them; they either didn’t pick up, or didn’t stock the ELEMNT, so after wasting I don’t know how long, I got back in the saddle and made my way to CP1 using the route sheets and guessing the distances between turns. I had only 40 minutes spare now, due to the faffing.
Once at Woodstock, I was greeted by the two controllers; Anne, and Chris – both of whom I almost walked straight past, as I daydreamed a way out of my predicament. Anyway, they asked how I was, so I told them: “Hmm, not too good”, and Anne asked if I was feeling ill. I thought I might say “YES, I feel sick enough, but I thought better of it, ha ha ha. I told them the story of the ELEMNT and they both made all of the right noises and then set to work in finding a bike shop locally where I could buy a replacement. Chris said to use the facilities and fill up my water bottle – nice one, guys!
I sat back down and Anne had located a shop in Oxford, but this would add another 40 or 50km to my journey, effectively meaning that I would miss the subsequent controls and therefore lose any validation for the ride. Chris pointed this out, and I said: “Well, I do like a challenge”, we both had a laugh about that. I did ask if it was worth getting a cab there and back (to Oxford, not Wales), but Anne said it would take too long, it would be much quicker by bike. I have to say that the pair of them were very understanding and very supportive, so I need to say a big thank you to them both – thank you, guys!
I phoned the shop, Ubyk, in Oxford. They sold the ELEMNT, but it wasn’t in stock; my heart sank, and we started looking for other shops. I glanced down to see my brother’s number come up on the phone, but didn’t get to it quickly enough so I decided to phone him later on. Then flashed up another number with an area code that I didn’t recognise. I picked up, expecting a PPI call or something, but it was Joshua, the guy from Ubyk – he had found an ELEMNT bolt out the back of the shop. Now, it wasn’t the model I wanted, but good enough and I told him that I would probably be there to collect it soon. He told me he’d keep it for me and I arrived about 40 minutes later, after skipping the heart rate up to Z4 for a while, to make up a bit of time.
I explained quickly what had happened and Joshua did what he could to help – he had the thing out of the box and was booting it up before I even had payment ready. I scanned it in with my phone and quickly configured a screen with the data I needed; distance to go, HR zone, cadence, average speed, etc. I have to say, it was a snap to set up as all of my information was already in the companion app that runs on the phone. No need at all to mess about configuring heart rate zones, height, weight, or any of those things. Big thanks to Wahoo for such a fab way of setting things up! We chatted about the ride but I wasn’t really concentrating and was trying to save time, so I made my apologies and then I was off, but not before getting a quick snap of Joshua for the blog. See how I am thinking ahead now with this blogging thing? Thankfully, Joshua wasn’t camera shy. Thank you, Joshua, for all of your help, it was very much appreciated on the day.
Tewkesbury was next, so I plugged that into the new toy – Tewkesbury School came up and I thought that would do – it would be near enough. I set off to do battle with the traffic through Oxford. I headed north, back into the city centre and followed the directions on the ELEMNT.
I took a left and wound through the city streets before being directed onto a towpath; I hate towpaths. I mean, they’re lovely, but they’re also good for punctures, and people ambling along – not good when you are trying to make up time. Soon enough I encountered a family having a nice quiet ride and I slowed down and kept a good distance back as I was certainly not going to ruin their ride for them. I told myself that I was almost certainly out of time anyway and that racing for CPs wasn’t really worth doing.
Soon enough they stopped (just after that bridge), and started chatting. I made my way around them, saying hello – the rest of the towpath was very slow, negotiating people enjoying a walk or a leisurely cycle in the sunshine, and why not? Me, however, I was eager to find tarmac. Seven very slow kilometers on the towpath had been the last thing I needed, which was when I heard the A40 next to me. Not long after that, I hit a dead end and traced back where I found a set of steps leading to smooth tarmac.
So it was up the steps and onto smooth surfaces, albiet congested ones. The A40 was snarled up, but it was a good, wide road with plenty of room in the middle. I got my head down, settled in onto the aero bars and and it was back up into Z4 for the next ten kilometers, as I streamed past all of the cars, patiently waiting one behind the other in the hot sun. I had a little smile to myself as my heart rate lit up the amber lights on the ELEMNT and I thanked goodness I was doing what I was doing, instead of being imprisoned in one of those cars. “This is being alive”, I thought, as the adventure stretched out in front of me.
From there on, I passed through Witney and up over the beautiful Cotswolds where I took in some stunning views, passing the likes of Swinbrook, Burford, Windrush and Hazleton.
I ended up in a carpark with 10 or so young blokes with souped-up hatchbacks, eyeing me suspiciously.
As it turned out, this was exactly the way to tackle the rest of the ride, for more delays were afoot. I pressed on through Witney and Burford and then took a right that was signed as a dead end, following the route on the ELEMNT. I thought it would probably lead to a bridleway, but I ended up in a carpark with 10 or so young blokes with souped-up hatchbacks, eyeing me suspiciously.
Around me were fields, and my path was set straight through the group. I gave them a smile and said “Hello lads, do you know if I can get to a road if I just carry straight up along here, through those fields?” They looked at each other, and one of them stepped forward. He paused, and then said: “We’ve never really been past the car park here – you might be lucky, but I can’t guarantee anything.” That was easy, then, no ridiculing the bloke on a bike or mugging him. “OK”, I said, “thanks for that – I could do with a walk and I suppose if you walk far enough in a straight line anywhere, you’ll reach a road at some point!” We all had a laugh about that and I passed through them and headed off into the fields, where sheep took on the job of eyeing me suspiciously Lots of this was to follow. And worse.
I trudged off, a bit irritated at being without roads, late for the controls, heading for an incomplete brevet card and very hot. It was very hot. Still, my arse had been in the saddle long enough, so I thought a walk would do me good in that respect, so I wasn’t too irritated. To start with, that is. Brockhampton to Gotherington was to be testing, to say the least.
Eight, yes EIGHT kilometers later, I found a road. The fields did have some tracks in them, but they weren’t roads, and very difficult to navigate on a road bike. I climbed over gates, fences, trudged through foot-enveloping mud, waded through ankle-deep water, got scratched and stung by vicious plants and then eventually found tarmac. This made the earlier Towpath episode look tame. My time had taken another serious hit, so it was time to re-evaluate. I dropped the pace right off as I decided to ditch worrying about control points at all and just enjoy the ride. I’m not a great one for medals or badges, and, although it would have been nice to have had a completed brevet card as a souvenier for this ride, there are more important things in life. 15km from Tewkesbury, In Gotherington, I spied a service station and took a quick left and filled up with food and drink. The lady behind the counter was very interested in the journey, and I stayed around for ten minutes or so, just chatting with her and resting my arse. I then set off, finding a grassy corner to sit down and scoff my food at.
Forty minutes or so later and I finally arrived at Tewkesbury, but I was around 4 hours late due to the earlier incidents and the fact that I had blindly followed the map to the school. I still felt good though, and I was still enjoying the ride with about an hour of daylight left. I was also back on the official route, and that was a relief – “no more fields or trudging through mud and impassable bridleways”, I thought.
I have searched all I can, been through the ride data, scoured the GPS plot, estimated times but I cannot find where one part of the journey happened. I do know that it was between Tewkesbury and darkness. As I cycled along, I saw a girl on the pavement, looked teenage, our eyes met, and she looked at me imploringly.
Obviously this was a bit risky, people don’t like to be told how to parent their kids, let alone some lycra-clad tree-hugger telling the man of the house what to do
As I was passing, she said “Help me ..?” I pulled up sharply, thinking first of my own daughter of similar age, and I asked her if I could help. “I’m Nick”, I said, “I can help you, what do you need?” She looked nervous. “There’s no need to worry; I’m here to help you, what’s up, what’s your name?” She told me her name and she told me that her Mum and stepfather had abandoned her at the side of the road after some sort of disagreement in the car. She wanted to borrow my phone but I convinced her that I phone her Mum myself, hoping that a third person (and an adult) might have more chance of reconciliation between them. I made the call and her Mum said they were on the way. It was sad, she was 15, she had been crying, her tears had dripped down onto her top – all I could see was my daughter in her. I consoled her, told her it would all be okay and I gave her some ideas about support groups and services that might be able to help her. She seemed happier after that. She had stopped crying now and seemed more positive. We discussed being a teenager, we discussed her family life and it seemed that life had not been easy for her. I made her laugh a couple of times, I told her about my ride, and getting lost, and how late I was for it all. She was amazed that I would be riding through the night. We got on quite well and it was good to see her in better spirits. Wih that, her Mum arrived with the stepfather in the car, and this did not go down well. The mood darkened and she refused to get in the car with the stepfather, walking off up the road. Her Mum suggested I go after her, which I did – I caught her up and calmed her down, we discussed her options and I reminded her of the support services she now had at hand. I went back to the Mum, and I told her that I thought that it would be better if the stepfather made his way home in a cab or something and then she could take her daughter home while things blew over a bit. Obviously this was a bit risky, people don’t like to be told how to parent their kids, let alone some lycra-clad tree-hugger telling the man of the house what to do, and it wasn’t long until the stepfather was out of the car and questioning me about it all. I stood my ground and I said that it was our duty to do what was best for the daughter; we were the adults and we had to look after her – she was the vulnerable one in all this and we were supposed to be the ones acting responsibly. He backed down and skulked off to find a taxi. Nice, check out the tree-hugger. So, Mum and daughter were reunited, and everything seemed a bit calmer. I waved them goodbye and wished them well. The Mum messaged me a few times into the night but I didn’t see them until the next day. Seemed the girl had calmed down and that things were much more settled. Bless her. I pushed on, as the sun started its way down under the horizon. I was now hopelessly late, but this ride was getting done.
The night closed in faster than I had expected it to and the temperature dropped. I was cold, but not cold enough to stop and layer up. There was still a long way to go. I have to say that the organiser was top notch and he knew that I was well behind. I got plenty of support through the wee small hours, via text message, and tweets like this one:
Anne from CP1 was also on board, checking up on me near the end of the ride:
210 km in and I happened across The Penny Farthing Inn, Aston Crews. It had been about 50km since my last stop and it was now fully dark, with the sun long below the horizon. Guinness was calling. I leaned the bike up below the window sill, killed the lights, and entered. The guy behind the bar looked up, and with a smile asked me what I would like. I went for just a half a Guinness, and we chatted about the ride. he said that he had had a lot of people through earlier on bikes and I told him that I had had a few delays, to say the least! He filled my water bottle for me, and I bid him farewell – he was a nice, friendly guy and I appreciated a bit of human contact on what was largely a solitary journey. Yat Rock loomed and I dug in and finished that off, poor Big Ears nearly fell off the back of the bike, it was lucky that I had checked on the luggage when I had. Not that Big Ears is luggage, of course.
I pushed on into the night and I don’t remember too much about it, though I was in good spirits and still feeling fairly fresh, it did get cold and I had to limit my speeds downhill and pop on my arm warmers, a base layer and long fingered gloves. I tracked through The Wye Valley, Sling, St. Briavels, Tidenham Chase and dropped down into Chepstow. Then it was back over The River Wye, immediately followed by the Severn Bridge, swinging East as I came back into England after my very short visit to Wales.
Its a funny thing when you are waiting for sunrise and everyone is asleep as you slice silently through the cold night air, through small villages, towns, and on open roads flanked by fields. Odd shapes shift and take sinister form at the sides of the road. Men, bent double and unfamiliar animals that you can’t identify are among the shapes that start you out of your weariness, before they melt away as you get closer. You know when dawn is coming because you will hear a bird sing here and there, then it goes quiet for a while, before the sun lights the horizon golden brown and the dawn chorus starts in earnest. It was at this point that I found a bus shelter in Lea, between Malmesbury and Cleverton where I took a seat and ate some on board snacks about 4 hours after crossing The River Severn and now closing in on 300km.
10km down the road and up came the sun over the horizon. It really is something to get on a bike at 6.00am and ride until the sun goes down, and then carry on riding until it comes up again. The sun will spur you on, and I was beginning to need it, fatigue had kicked in and the cold of the night had not helped any more than the extra distance and all the delays. I updated Twitter:
Things deteriorated, the heat was severe, I was constantly thirsty, fatigued, and my feet were starting to complain
20km later and I was beginning to feel it, it was now 24 hours in the saddle, more or less and this topped my longest ride by quite a considerable amount. I needed to get my head down, I needed some sleep, but I decided to have a go at bashing the rest of the ride out. There was about 120km to go; “its a Sunday ride”, I said to myself – you’re just out for a 100km Sunday ride, plus a bit extra. On the north side of Royal Wooten Basset I pulled in at a service station and treated myself to a coffee and some hot food. I refilled on water, and climbed back on the bike. The temperature soon began to soar and it wasn’t long before I needed to take off some layers. The gloves were changed first, since the short fingered ones were just tied up on the back of the bike. I rolled the arm warmers down but left the base layer as I was too tired to stop. At this point, getting to the end was the only thing on my mind. Eventually, it just got too hot and I was forced to stop and take off the base layer. I was also starting to go numb due to being in the saddle so long and I decided that, with 80km to go, I needed to get out of the saddle if I didn’t want the numbness to get any worse. So, I selected a high gear stood up, and got going. Things deteriorated, the heat was severe, I was constantly thirsty, fatigued, and my feet were starting to complain at the pressure from me being out of the saddle all of the time. I had little sensation in my fingers as they slipped between tingling and outright numbness. My throat was raw as I drew in hot air and my tongue dried out over the miles. In this state, you do not make good decisions. I should have spent some time back in the saddle but I was worried about the numbness, so I kept my arse where it was; airborne. The North Wessex Downs were enough to almost finish me. It just seemed to be hill after hill, with little respite. The sun beat down and I stopped here and there for cold drinks but I could not rid myself of the thirst. Long ago I made a rule about hills: Never walk them, you can rest and ride them in parts, but never walk a hill. Towards the end of the ride, this all went out of the window. I pushed the bike up a few hills, draping myself over the bars as I panted and pressed onwards. I felt broken, exhausted and the urge to quit washed over me. “No”, I said to myself, this is getting finished – this is what makes you stronger, these are the limits people speak of pushing.” With about 50km to go, I was counting down the tenths of a km on the ELEMNT. I took it one tenth of a km at a time as I knew this was the only way to make it to the end of this thing. “Mind games, I told myself, just mind games…”. I silently celebrated getting to 20km, then 10km, knowing inwardly that I was winning, I was going to finish this. At the top of one large hill at the end, I paused on a green at the side of the road, just to give my ruined body a rest before closing up the last of those 80km out of the saddle. I draped myself over the bars, breathing heavily and just stopped myself from falling over as I realised I was going asleep. Eventually, signs for Holtspur and Beaconsfield came into view, and I gritted my teeth and finished the ride off, arriving in the carpark where it all started, seemingly so long ago. It was done, and so was I. So, with over 24 hours of cycling in the bag, I realised some time later that I now qualify as an ultra distance cyclist. It’s true, James Hayden says so, and James Hayden is King:
The car, after spending hours in the hot sun, was like an oven inside, and I loaded the bike with all the windows and doors open. I collapsed into the drivers seat, the balls of my feet ablaze after so many hours out of the saddle, up so many gradients, in such intense heat. Gingerly, I removed my socks to reveal red and blistered feet. It took me about ten minutes to put my shoes on. I messaged my family, moved the car out of the car park and into a shady lane, where I got some sleep with all the windows open. Later, I drove home. In summary: The ride was, as ever, a learning experience and I will take what I have learned forwards with me to improve future rides. The ride to Hull taught me how to manage numbness, lessons in pacing and how to look after my knees. That all helped with this ride, there were no knee issues and I have learned more about the best ways to manage numbness. Long distance bike riding is much more about mental strength and experience in managing the way you ride and therefore the stresses you put on your body, than it is about anything else. Most of all, this ride taught me to be who I am, to be realistic with what I can achieve. When I looked at the ride times of others, I realised just how far away I am from some people, even without all of the dramas I had. None of that matters though, when you realise that you are breaking your own boundaries and you are somebody different to the person you were a year ago. If I stop right here and never achieve anything else on my bike, I will be pleased with what I have done. That said, this is the beginning and I am excited to achieve more. Could I have made this distance a year ago? No, not a chance. That’s not anything to do with fitness, its to do with state of mind and experience, and all of this I have improved through my adventures. So, we will wait to see if the feet repair themselves. Its now about 9 weeks after the event and I still have numbness. The things we do for our dreams! Relive video.