13. One Thousand Lessons

With my longest ride ever at 600 km, and Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) planned tentatively, and looming, it was time to try out 1000 km but I had no idea how things would turn out. TL;DR is that it didn’t go to plan, just like my last attempt at pushing a distance that I wasn’t sure I could manage: yes, it was London-Wales-London on steriods.

Work commitments were at an all time high and I didn’t get to book onto The Flatish ACME Grand Audax until the 30th August and it closed for entries on the 31st. I had a trip to Holland booked well in advance with my ACME club friends and I knew that a bad Grand could blow it for me – perhaps there would be no trip to Holland, but 1000 km had to be tried ahead of entering PBP, a 1250 km event as I just wasn’t confident going into a ride of twice my longest distance ever without a bit of a taster.

The Grand was to be 1000 km, with 3055 m of climbing and to be completed within 75 hours.

The plan was to bivy instead of using the luxury of hotels. I’d done an Audax Hotel (that’s a bus shelter) on my 600, so it was time to go all out illegal wild camping, having the utmost respect for where I slept with a ‘leave no trace’, and I mean no trace ethos. This meant that I didn’t have to make hotels by a certain time and I could sleep when I wanted, more or less – total flexibility, minimum stress, uber convenient.

I bought the bivy while I was on holiday in Cumbria, opting for the more expensive variety in the form of a Outdoor Research Helium from outdoorgear and which had very good reviews. Outdoor Gear were excellent and kept their promise for delivery, so it arrive in time for the event.

Days later on Thursday September the 1st I somehow found myself lined up at the start of a 1000 km ride, with little preparation and high hopes. This was big.

I looked around at the others and saw some familiar faces; tough men and women amongst them and the sort of people that I had only admired from afar for so long. But here I was, amongst them, alongside them.

I remembered what seemed so long ago when I had dreamt of doing this sort of distance, it seemed so unattainable back then, so far removed from what I felt I would ever be capable of when 200 km was a milestone and 600 km was something only for super-humans like Chris Herbert and Darren Franks to accomplish. Yet the flame inside me had burned brighter and brighter and perhaps now was my time to shine, just a little.

Yes; here I was, exchanging words with people I had dreamt about riding alongside for so long and all of us were duly reverent of what lay ahead; this wouldn’t be easy and the hard-bitten and newbies like me knew it.

The start of it all. People were lining up to begin, so I snapped this one before throwing a leg over the bike that is seen here in the foreground and familiar to you if you’ve followed my progress.

The group dispersed quickly as we left the start point; different abilities making varied progress and most absorbed in their own thoughts. I myself ended up in a small group including a few people from my cycling club. Two out of three would bow out early, one not long having done London-Edinburgh-London and the third, hundreds of kilometers later, but for now we rode together.

Andrew and I had ridden together before. He’s an experienced and well organised rider with more experience than I, so I felt lucky to have him alongside me to guide me through this monumentally (for me) big ride and provide much appreciated encouragement, advice and pacing. Our pace usually goes well together, but this time he seemed to be riding a bit quicker than usual, only a little though, so I kept up. It dawned on me at some point that a cumulative effect could blow things for me, but I just ignored that.

Andrew leads me out of Ashwell after control 1.

We chatted and rode together until Andrew punctured, and encouraged me to carry on with the others (which, in the end, I did!) After both my other companions had scratched, I met up with Andrew at the first control, Days Bakery, at 1452, well before the control closure at 1633 and about 80 km in where we treated ourselves to some delicious sandwiches, cake and something to drink. I took the above photo shortly after that, about four hours in to the ride as we headed to control two at Oundle.

Control 2, Oundle.

About 150 km in and we arrived at control 2, Oundle, at about 1815 and seven hours into the ride where we dived into the Tesco Express after parking my bike up outside Boots. It was a quick bite to eat so that we’d make control 3, Bottesford and then back in the saddle for another four hours, passing through Harringworth at about 1930 and 8.5 hours into the ride. Here we took in the stunning Welland Viaduct. 30 million bricks were used in this viaduct’s construction, completed during 1878. It’s well over 1 km long and with 82 arches. What a piece of work!

Darkness had drawn in by the time we reached Bottesford control shortly before 2200 and we sat at a bench and had a bite to eat and something to drink with about 11 hours and 200 km into what was my first truly notable ride in terms of long distance.

We had decided early on in the ride that we would just ride through the first day and night, then the second day. This gives you a good jump on the ride and a time cushion should things go wrong, it also acts as encouragement for your body to sleep when you finally get the chance. I knew that I’d need all the encouragement I could get for my first bit of wild camping, since I can be a bit of a worrier, and that keeps me awake.

Leaving our bench at the side of the road, we pushed on to cover the relatively short distance of around 50 km to Retford, where we had promised ourselves McDonalds – it would be good to get some hot food after so many hours in the saddle and I always fancy something hot at night, not that I always get it!

We arrived at The Golden Arches at about 0130 on Friday (day 2) and some 5 hours ahead of the control cut-off, keeping our promises of some hot food and a drink – great fuel for the ride through the small hours. We had around 80 km to the next control at Pocklington, arriving at the control by 0710 and eating lots of service station rubbish on the forecourt. We were making good progress and a reasonable time ahead of the 1235 control closure.

Scotch Corner was around another 100 km, so it was down to business for an early afternoon arrival there. Somehow we got separated along the way, I can’t remember why that was now but we did. I remember Andrew agreeing that he’d wait for me at Scotch Corner, which he did. I rolled in there at about 1330 with 26 hours of riding and about 450 km of the ride covered. I was really pleased with this but I knew I would have to sleep soon. If I could grab three or four hours I knew I’d be good for another long stint in the saddle. One problem that had somehow arisen was saddle soreness, something I very rarely suffer from, certainly not on any ride up to 600 km. I’d already plastered myself wih Chamois Cream, but for some reason it hadn’t worked. I just told myself that a sleep would fix things.

Andrew then announced that he was to scratch. He’d had some knee issues along the way and wasn’t willing (quite rightly) to make things worse. Andrew was booked in for the Dutch Trip, and a 1000 km ride for him wasn’t so much of a milestone as it was for me. A diversion was already planned for him to his hotel, so he took that, slept, and then took the train back the next day.

So, we shook hands and I was on my own, which was fine by me; I’m good at riding bikes on my own. I did need to get some sleep though, so I started thinking about looking for places to bivy.

I would wait until it got dark to set up camp since there was less chance of being spotted (remember, wild camping is illegal in most parts of the UK), and it would be easier to sleep with less traffic noise and in the cooler nighttime temperatures.

It was, therefore, on to Bishop Auckland, featuring some very sharp climbs of up to 16% that I found challenging given the amount of time I’d been riding and the distance I’d covered. I passed one guy that I’d been behind for some time just before he unclipped and gave up. We muttered expletives (hill-related) as I passed in first gear; lurching from one revolution to the next in as I ground my way heavenwards, I arrived at Bishop Auckland control at around 1600 and approaching 30 hours without sleep. I was just under half way by now.

Yarm control came next at about 515 km and 1730 where I popped into Sainsburys and bought something, I can’t remember what though! I also met a couple of other riders and we rode together to the next control (Northallerton). I stopped off at ASDA just before 1945 for proof of passage and got chatting to my fellow riders. We rode for a while afterwards but I don’t remember any of their names. I did note that the other guys seemed more up-beat than I felt, but I kept on smiling and just got on with things. The soreness was not easing up.

I think it was by about this point where things started to go wrong; I was still hours ahead, so I should have just found somewhere to bivy and got some sleep; even three hours would have done it. Instead, I spent the whole evening looking for the perfect bivy spot, but there was always a farmhouse nearby whose occupants may have seen me setting up by torchlight, or the ground was muddy, or it was nearby a noisy, busy road, or I wasn’t sure if there was livestock in it and was worried a cow would step on my head in the night, or so many other things.

Fast forward to just before midnight and I found somewhere to sleep, a five star Audax Hotel opposite Alanbrooke Barracks, a short hop west of Thirsk.


On spotting the shelter, I drew quickly to a halt and swung round in the middle of the road to go back and inspect in more detail. There was a bench long enough for three adults, it was sheltered and the road was bound to be quiet at that time. Looking back at the numbers, I was now 560 km in and without sleep for 37 hours. It there and then that it dawned on me: perhaps I was finally becoming the animal I’d for so long dreamt of being.

I set up bivy and climbed in. The barracks ended up being the source of lots of nightime activity, with cars going in and out of there more regularly than I’d hoped for. I was slipping in and out of consciousness but it wasn’t really what I’d call sleeping. I reckon about three and a bit hours. It was better than nothing, I’d hoped.

So, it would have been about 0415 when I got going again, forgetting to start the Wahoo up straight away. I felt half asleep, my saddle soreness had got worse despite bucket loads of chamois cream, and stints out of the saddle and things had begun to go numb. “More time out of the saddle”, I told myself, and I pushed on.

Breakfast at Flawith on a bench.

Flawith was the next stop at about 575 km and 0530. I had slowed down due to lack of sleep, enormous physical and mental effort and soreness like I’ve never known. I sat for a while as the small village slept and I had a bite to eat. A guy walked past with his dog and we nodded our silent hellos.

It took me a long time to do the 45 or so km to Pocklington control (619 km) due to multiple stops to nap, apply cream, sit around at the side of the road, etc. I arrived at Pocklington control at about 0928, some 45 minutes late. I’d blown it. Two other riders were there and we offered each other a bit of support.

So, what to do? Well, I’d decided on a 1000 km ride and once I make a decision then I will usually see it through. this one would not be an exception, I told myself.

There was a long way to go and I was really in no condition to be pushing out another 400 or so km, but I got going. I followed the course south, passing Goole and riding alongside the River Trent for what seemed like an eternity into a headwind. I slogged it out and rested where I could as I pushed on, hitting the Gainsborough control at about 1700, this was now the third day, Saturday September the 3rd.

I kept stopping and just collapsing on the grass at the side of the road. At one point I started looking up nearby train stations, exhausted; desperate just to get off the bike, get some relief, sleep, start to heal. At one point, I woke up on the grass with my phone in my hand, not sure where I was or how long I’d been asleep for. I pushed on.

East Stockwith, north of Gainsborough.

Shortly before 2100, I was at Metheringham and the Boston control would have been off east so I stopped at a service station for a coffee and to look at more direct options. If I had to add to the ride to make up 1000 km at the end, I would, but it made more sense to get straight home, rather than back to the start point. I checked into WhatsApp, updating who has become my official in-ride support, also known as my Sister-in-Law. She didn’t let me down:

In-ride support from Ann.

By midnight, I had arrived at Bourne, about 40 km north of Peterborough and it was not long after this that the hallucinations kicked in with suprising clarity. Firstly though, I got hopelessley disorientated on the west side of Peterborough, ending up in a never ending circle of housing estate – cycle lane – park; finally I made it out.

The night brought with it the hallucinations; giant boar the size of upright pianos, huge nets full of rolled up pieces of newspaper hanging off of huge hooks who’s chains vanished into the inky black night sky, a mystery car that followed me silently through gravel strewn roads, right behind me, until it finally overtook and turned left further on up the road. That one might even have been real. All those things had such realness – you know they can’t be real but how do you deny what’s real when its there in front of your eyes? You tell yourself it will fade, its not there, but you see it until you’re almost upon it.

Closing in on 900 km I started to fall asleep on the bike. It was around 0600 on the final day, so I found a wooded area, put my air matress on the ground, pulled out my down jacket and put it on, then fell asleep on the ground. This was just south of Kings Ripton, at the junction of the B1090 and the A141. I got about an hour of sleep there and then set back off on the road, with about 120 km to go, I was very keen to finish this ride off. Sore, beyond exhausted and now with a bonus achilles issue, it would be some slog.

Chapel Hill in Haslingfield and Barley Road just north of Barley were sent to break me and they almost did but I grimaced and hauled myself up them. Somehow.

Chapel Hill – 0; me 1.

The next stop was Barrington, 80 km from the finish line, for something to eat and to stock up on liquids. The guy in the Post Office and I shared a couple of jokes and some small talk, then I went outside and ate up. I had about 20 minutes there and it was good to have a bit of social interaction. One of the things I like most about riding bikes is meeting people, be those other riders or people you meet along the route.

There were lots of people on bikes around here, so it must be a popular area for cycling. I smiled and nodded and waved at them, one looked down their nose with a note of superiority at the middle-aged, dishevelled, exhausted wreck and that did make me smile a bit.

Next was Roydon, really homing in on the finish now with about 35 km to go and I treated myself to an ice cream outside the Post Office in Roydon. A good looking couple argued nearby and at one point the guy caught my eye as I tucked into my ice cream. I stared blankly back at him, wondering if he was going to say something and he looked away. The zombie death stare that only journeys like mine give you probably put him off. Funny when you don’t even mean it, he could have probably blown me over if he’d wanted to.

I got home at around 1500 only to find that I was just short of 1000 km, so I overshot and came back. That’ll be 1000.66 km, thank you. It was during those last few kilometres where I had my final hallucination; soldiers up in one of the trees I often walk my dog past. They had those nets over their helmets with leaves sticking out of them and one was speaking into his radio. I knew they weren’t there, but they weren’t melting away and I was really very near to them before they did.

So, it was done and there wasn’t much more done that month. Recovery from all the numbness, my achilles and quite a pronounced lack of strength in my left hand took about three months. Holland didn’t happen.

It was a big year for me, bagging my first Super Randonneur award, consisting of, as per Audax requirements: the “BR(M) series: 200 km, 300 km, 400 km, 600 km, all completed in the same Randonneur year.” Also, I finally managed my first 600 km ride and broke my own personal record to hit 10,000 km over the calendar year, racking up 11.425 km.

If you’ve made it this far, you probably deserve more credit than I do for perseverance! So, that’s it. Much more learned. Don’t go without your sleep, kids 😉

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