Saturday 4th May - Sunday 5th May 2013
This is the story of the hardest cycling event I have ever done, the Road Trip organised by Rat Race. This was a two day ride from London to Edinburgh, covering a total distance of 440 miles, starting at 5.00am on Saturday at Tower Bridge and finishing at Holyrood Park in Edinburgh any time before midnight on Sunday.
After an extremely busy cycling season in 2012, my last event was the Exmoor Beast in October and I was keen to take a break from the bike for the winter straight after that. However, I ended up taking most of November, and all of December and January off due to bad weather, illness and a complete lack of motivation to start riding again.
I'd signed up for the Road Trip in November and my creeping panic about whether I would be able to complete it eventually forced me to start my training at the end of January. I spent the next three months in preparation, but was always convinced that I'd left it a little too late.
Most of my pre-event work was made up of local rides and I became far too familiar with the roads running south and east of here towards Gainsborough, Retford and Worksop. But, with there being so much mileage on the event made up of flat terrain, I was looking to spend as long as I could in the saddle and the Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire roads were perfect for this.
By the end of February I was ready to test my progress and a single day ride to London fit the bill nicely. Leaving at 4.30am and arriving at 7.30pm I covered the 185 miles with just two stops and had plenty of energy left at the finish. The temperatures were still very low as the winter dragged on, but this was good conditioning for me - I had no idea what sort of weather I'd be facing in Scotland in early May.
At the end of March I went to Majorca for a weeks training. Flying out and back on the two Fridays I managed to be on the bike for all 6 days in between. Distances varied from 40 to 90 miles, but on my way home I worked out I'd averaged 75 miles a day, which did a bit to calm my nerves. I saved the famous climb up from the sea at Sa Collobra for the last day and nearly drowned in the sweat on the last kilometre, but it felt like it was doing me good.
After Majorca, I typically did a long and a short ride at the weekends (around 40 and 80 miles) and in the week I did a mixture of commuting to work a couple of times (a 45 mile round trip) and hour long sessions on a spinning bike at the gym. My one variation from this was a trip to Salisbury for The Joker, a short but hilly sportive I'd missed out on last year and was keen to fit in this year. On it's own it wasn't much of an addition to the training but I pushed all the way along to double the effort.
After all of that, with a week to go I couldn't bring myself to do any more. I was keen to get on with it and spent the week eating and resting. Depressingly, this short spell of inactivity left me all with the symptoms of a cold coming on and I fretted right up until the off that I was going to be laid low with a very badly timed spell of ill health.
Being based in Doncaster I took the day off to get down to London in good time. With such an early start, riders had to register for the event the day before and my train was booked for 1pm.With so much spare time available on the day, I inevitably put off a lot of stuff I should have done earlier in the week - mainly the tedious cleaning and maintenance I always avoid if I can.
I ended up reconnecting my now clean and shiny chain with about an hour to go before the train left. And then, as I was starting to congratulate myself on my excellent timekeeping, I managed two punctures in a row before getting out of the damn garage. Not the relaxed start I'd hoped for, especially as I was now down to the last of my spare inner tubes.
I made the train ok, and spent the journey with the usual feeling of being slightly out of place sat in my cycling gear amongst normal folk. Emerging from Kings Cross station that afternoon into a beautiful sunny day was an uplifting feeling and the short ride down to Tower Bridge was a pleasure. Next to the bridge is Potters Field Park on the south side of the Thames, where the ride was to start from. Today it was filled with sunbathers enjoying themselves and the organiser's marquee in the middle of them all looked quite out of place.
There were surprisingly few other riders waiting to register and the guys manning the registration desk took their chance to chat with those of use who'd turned up. This was also a four day event for those who wanted to tackle it at a more sedate pace and those riders had been sent off early that morning. Knowing what we were in for, or perhaps out of boredom they delighted in talking big. One quote - describing a hilly part of the route around Bishop Auckland as -the section where dreams will be made or broken..." - stuck in my mind as both ridiculously overdone yet also worrying possible.
With nothing much else to do, I wandered off to my Travelodge for the evening. Dinner was at a nearby Italian then it was back to the room to fret over packing and repacking what I was going to carry the next day and the rest of my luggage that would rejoin me at York on Saturday night. By now the nerves were jangling and I was probably becoming a little OCD, to the point where only a librarian would have appreciated my highly organised company. I eventually settled down for a refreshing 5 hours sleep and a 3am start.
Waking up on time, I spent quite a bit of time sitting and starring into the middle distance waiting to properly come round. After a bowl of granola and an hour of BBC News 24 I was just about ready to face the start of what was going to be the toughest two days I'd ever had on a bike.
It was a short ride south over the bridge down to Potters Field and in the chilly pre-dawn air I was glad I had packed my warm gear, despite yesterdays sunshine. The start area was poorly lit in the gloom, apart from one or two spotlights around the mechanics van and the inflatable start line arch. I dropped my bag with the luggage van and wandered about a bit. There was very little excitement or anticipation amongst the riders, it was too early for that. No conversations, just the occasional overheard comment about the start opening -soon".
Despite my bike having been in for some fairly significant work on it in April, I took advantage of the free service and got the gears checked. I was happy to see that the mechanic found some play in the gear cables and saved me a lot of annoyance for the weekend.
After all the build up and the training, the start was relatively low key. Amongst the small crowd of riders there were gradually spreading murmurs that the start line was open and in a steady trickle rather than a sudden rush we were on our way under the arch and down to the road that would take us all the way to Scotland.
Firstly, however, we had to navigate our way through Central London. Ordinarily borderline-lethal, today the roads were virtually empty and the 150 or so cyclists strung out in a single peloton certainly outnumbered any cars we encountered. A more entertaining hazard was the many drunks still standing outside the bars we passed. Puzzled questions about who we were or the occasional shout of (so I naively guessed) encouragement were heard, but luckily no bottles were thrown.
Riding in such a big group felt like a great start as, for probably the only time on the ride, we were all together. Following the crowd meant I didn't have to worry about finding my way and could take in the sights of the capital gradually waking up. Passing by White Hart Lane stadium, we were roughly halfway to the M25 and with only the occasional set of traffic lights to stop for it felt like a fairly rapid escape. We were all feeling fresh and as the sunlight strengthened our morale was up and so was the speed. I was talking easily with another bloke for most of this stretch despite averaging around 25 mph.
Crossing the orbital motorway, the countryside was more and more evident and the route changed from uninspiring A roads to quieter unclassified ones. The high speeds persisted and the sounds of gear changes and chains whirring replaced the white noise of urban traffic. The first pit stop arrived soon after, in the car park of The Bell pub in Standon, 32 miles from the start, just west of Bishop Stortford.
For such a big ride the modest size of the feed stop made me remember how few people were taking this on compared to most events I've ridden in, and how much we were likely to blend into the background over the next couple of days. I didn't hang around long, just a quick banana and flapjack and on my way again.
The next section was flat and uninspiring as we crossed from Hertfordshire into Cambridgeshire. The run in to the second pit stop was an arrow straight road that seemed to go on and on. I've never enjoyed riding in a group but along this stretch I was convinced that getting on to the back of one would save me a lot of energy and I pushed hard to catch a dozen or so riders ahead of me. I burned up a lot of energy with this effort and eventually caught them only to find that we were less than a minute away from the next stop.
A car park on the outskirts of Godmanchester is never going to be a place that will lift the spirits and this stop was a rather dull pause on the way, 66 miles in. The weather was good though - blue skies and sun - and after more flapjacks and a couple of sarnies the last part of Stage 1 beckoned. After briefly chatting with a female triathlete on an incredibly expensive looking bike I was on my own for a long stretch of twisty rural back roads where one minute I was fighting a head wind and the next being buffeted by a cross wind.
Arriving at Burghley House near Stamford came with the somewhat cold comfort that I had finished Stage 1 of the ride but only those doing the 4 day ride got to stay here overnight. For me it was just another sandwich and flapjack stop, with Stage 2 to tackle before I got near my bed. 98 miles down and still another 120 to go.
The next 30 miles were the most worrying of the weekend. The short sharp shower that I rode into as soon as left Burghley House and the wrong turn I took trying to get out of Stamford set the tone. Just as I was back on track and the rain cleared I heard the depressing hissing sound of my first ever puncture on a ride. It was an easy fix but it threw me out of the comfort zone that I had settled into over the day. Just an hour or so later I was back on the roadside fixing the same problem, this time with the last of my inner tubes. Even worse, I had found the cause. The rear tyre was so far gone the casing had ripped leaving an inch long gash in the rubber.
Despite, all the preparation and pre-ride checks I'd made, I'd somehow forgotten to even look at how worn the tyres were. And it was blindingly obvious too. Cursing the many articles I'd read on what to carry on a ride like this (and ignored), I stuck all my inner tube patches to the inside of the tyre, wished I had a proper tyre patch instead and crossed my fingers that they would hold it together long enough to get the next pit stop.
I rode the next 10 miles as gingerly as I could. Avoiding any gravel on the road, skirting as many potholes as possible and hoping those patches would do the job. It was a long wait and my two stops had dropped me quite a way down the order. The upside to this was that my position meant that the broom wagon was waiting to pick up any stragglers at the next pit stop, a small sports centre at Carlton-Le-Moorland. The friendly driver had a fresh tyre and a couple of tubes for me and was good enough to do the change for me too.
This was Lincolnshire and the ride from here to the finish was as flat as a pancake and it felt all the easier for knowing that I was rolling on fresh rubber. If there was a downside, it was that my comfy 25mm rear tyre had been replaced by a narrower 23mm version that was altogether less forgiving on my arse.
The remaining roads were ones I'd ridden dozens of times over the last few years and I began to relax as I made my way to York without having to think about the route. One last stop at The Reindeer Inn in Sandtoft (where I saw tempting signs for Doncaster pointing off to my left) marked 181 miles for the day but the start of some new problems. My stomach was struggling after a day of eating mainly sugary foods and a bag of ready salted crisps felt like heaven. It only put off the inevitable though as whenever I get into that state it's hard to take in anything that I need - solids or liquids - and it was just when I needed a boost.
As the sun was starting to set I was still a dozen miles from York and my guts were churning. The downside to clear blue skies all day was that the night was colder than normal and the sweat that had built up in my base layer during the day was leaving me feeling even chillier. If only I'd unzipped my jersey for an hour or so at some point I wouldn't be shivering as badly.
Rolling into York Racecourse just after 9.00pm I was feeling rough - tired and cold and keen to get to bed after covering 220 miles in 16 hours. A jacket spud with chilli and ten minutes by the space heater in the catering marquee helped but I couldn't collect my gear and get to my hotel quickly enough. The Knavesmire Manor Hotel may not get top scores on Tripadvisor but it was 2 minutes ride away and the shower was hot. Despite my fatigue I couldn't help spending an hour or so getting everything ready for the morning. It was nervous energy though, as I knew the hardest day was to come.
Waking up at 4.00am I got out of bed just as the start line was opening and riders were leaving from the Racecourse, but it was 5.20am before I crossed the line and got under way. I had traded an extra hour of sleep for less time available on the road. This put me way down the field but I had a plan for the day to avoid Saturday's mistakes.
First, I would eat only savoury food and avoid sugar. Secondly, I would stick to an average speed of 15mph, stopping every hour for a brief rest. On this basis I planned to grind out the day, deliberately finishing late at the expense of any glamorous performances. I knew today was going to be hillier and the silly quote from the bloke at the registration desk on Friday was ringing in my ears. As usual with any cycling events, there were rumours and guesses being traded as to when the hills would come in and how bad they would be and I was determined to make sure I had plenty in reserve for them. Last of all, knowing I was in for a late finish I wanted to avoid ending up as cold as yesterday by keeping the wind flowing through my jersey and the sweat evaporating. So, for most of the day the zip on my top was yo-yoing with the changes in temperature and the rate of effort.
The early morning start was pleasantly bright and some slight mist was gradually burning off the fields as I left York city centre and reached the countryside heading north. The first pit stop was 47 miles away and the brief stops on the hour made a rather tedious rural section with no real highlights pass quite easily. The pit stop at Scorton was a garage closed for the weekend and I enjoyed lounging on the grass of the village green listening to the banter amongst a group of rather posh blokes all in pink gear labelled Pork Train Velo.
Scorton to Lanchester was indeed -the section where dreams were made or broken". Over the next 36 miles my dreams remained intact though. The hills eventually began, mild at first but gradually more severe, particularly north of Bishop Auckland. However, my slow pace earlier in the day left me well placed to grind my way up the worst of them without too much trauma, even managing a couple of overtakes on some. Later in the day, however, I heard that on one of them someone had stopped and decided to abandon the ride. According to the broom wagon driver -he realised he had bitten off more than he could chew and just stepped off".
I stuck with the hourly breaks, encountering my first North East accent at the first pause when chatting to a friendly farmer. By the time of the second pit stop in Lanchester, Newcastle was not far off and the dialect was thickening. The stop was in a pub car park where a couple of riders were being looked after by their own support vehicles that had been following them along the route. Sticking with the savouries, some cheese sarnies went down nicely and I was off again with the marshal warning of more hills to come.
Again, I coped well with the last of the climbs but what surprised me about them was not the gradient or being able to climb them, but that they were mainly within built up areas rather than out on some exposed stretched of the Pennines. The route seemed to be passing through endless similar small towns that were gradually being swamped by Newcastle itself. It was only when I reached Ponteland that I found myself back on rural roads and the last few miles to the end of stage 3 were a lot quieter than what had come before. Morpeth Castle was another overnight stop for the 4 day riders and there was hot food and a lot going on as they were preparing for their arrival later that day.
Being near the back I was constantly running into the Broom Wagon and I made sure I was out of Morpeth by 2.30pm, only half an hour before the cut off. Officially this was 333 miles in and knowing I was soon to begin the last 100 miles was a relief. My recollection of the next section is poor but at only 25 miles it was relatively easy with no major highlights and I was in Alnwick for around 4.30pm. The stop was at a sports centre and was manned by some grumpy local men who had been promised they'd be allowed to pack up and go home by 2.00pm at the latest. The riders here were clearly the backmarkers and conversation was very much about who had seen any other riders behind us and when the Broom Wagon might be arriving.
Doing my sums I realised it was getting tight. There were 82 miles to go in 7 hours and the hilly Borders were still to be tackled. I'd deliberately targeted a late finish but the prospect of missing the cut off was depressing. On the other hand if I could maintain an average of 12mph and ride pretty much non-stop to the finish then I might do it.
Apart from a strong breeze the weather was still fine dry and bright. Under any other circumstances I'd enjoy this final section, but the pressure to make the finish loomed over me and while the light lasted I was focused purely on the bike computer, making endless calculations of average speeds, distance covered and still left to go. Given the thinning field of riders I encountered on the way to Alnwick I was surprised at how many I encountered on this final stretch. Encouraging words were exchanged and one pair offered me the chance to ride with them, but there was no way I'd be able to hang on to the back of them without burning up too much energy.
After a couple of hours the Scottish border approached and I paused for a second at the end of the bridge over the Tweed for a picture of the -Welcome to Scotland" sign. Joining me to take a picture was a rather forlorn guy I remembered from the earlier pit stop in Lanchester. He was getting ready to call it a day and ring his wife to come and collect him. He was a local so it was easy for him to head for home. I asked him what I was in for over the remaining miles but all I recall him saying was that there was a short sharp climb and then a long milder climb ahead.
Looking back, he was describing the road over the Lammermuir Hills, the last serious obstacle between me and Edinburgh. In the middle of those hills was the final pit stop at Cranshaws and the cut off time there was 9.00pm. I knew this would be a struggle and it was only nightfall that broke my focus on the computer. Riding on in the dark my morale was dropping with the temperature and the wind was getting up as the elevation increased. I was glad my top was dry today and, zipped up to the neck, the windproof jersey kept me nicely insulated.
The light I was using for this trip was excellent and gave me plenty of confidence riding in the pitch black isolation of the hills, yet simultaneously left me panicking over its remaining battery life. The LED indicator glowed amber, one step away from the critical level of red and I knew I'd need at least another 2 or 3 hours of illumination. This would nag at me all the way to the outskirts of Edinburgh as I was convinced I was about to be left stranded in the middle of nowhere due to something as petty as a flat battery.
Around about the point I was expecting the pit stop to arrive I saw instead the rear lights of a Transit van pulled over at the side of the road. A marshal was handing out water and food. A quick drink for me and a fruitless chat with him about where the pit stop had got to were all I got out of this encounter. Within a few minutes a pair of riders arrived asking the same questions and quickly pressed on. I wasn't far behind them as we arrived at Cranshaws.
It was 9.30pm and I finally had to contend with the Broom Wagon, which was waiting there for me. I reluctantly handed over my timing chip to the driver. I also side stepped the heated argument the pair of riders were having with his colleague about whether they had to hand theirs in if they thought they could still make the midnight deadline. I could see a few riders and their bikes in the van but there was no way I was joining them.
Not far down the road the by now furious pair passed me again, their anger stoking their legs and loudly arguing between themselves about the injustice of it all. I watched them gradually disappear off into the distance, their flashing rear lights getting harder and harder to make out. I was too tired to really care by now, we were well outside the cut off time and the only way to do anything about it was to make the finish before the final midnight deadline.
These last hours were the grimmest of all. The worry over the possible loss of lighting added to the exhaustion and sense of isolation created by the complete blackness around me. Since Alnwick I'd had a couple of brief stops of no more than a few minutes each and having lost track of how far I'd gone, or when the finish would come, it felt like I'd never reach the end.
A handful of miles further and I got to the sharp climb I'd been warned of. I could see just about enough to make out the beginnings of a climb beyond the white triangle of lit road ahead but its gradient still surprised me. So did my ability to grind up it though and that achievement briefly cheered me. A few miles further and the road became a long drag up the shallower climb but it was one that never seemed to end. I was forced to stop again for a breather, bent over the handlebars waiting for my heart rate to drop to normal.
Finishing the climb I was at the high point of the hills and could make out street lighting in the distance. Not the uplifting sight of Edinburgh that I'd hoped for though, but what looked like a small town off to my right while road was bearing gently to the left. The wind was very strong now and the long descent off the summit was hard to enjoy given I couldn't see far enough ahead of me for the speed I was travelling. The poor road surface meant potholes jumped out at me with little warning and bends loomed up far too quickly. I was desperate not to have an off in such a lonely spot and road the brakes all the way down.
Coming off the hills into the start of civilisation was a relief. The road improved and there were occasional stretches of lampposts as villages came and went. At one point I caught and passed the pair from earlier who had stopped for a puncture, which at least reassured me that I was on the right track. The route markers were hard to pick out in the dark and getting lost at this late stage was a depressing prospect.
After what seemed like an eternity on small rural roads the route hit the A199 at Tranent with signs now showing the way to Edinburgh. The pair of riders had caught me again and I followed them to a fork in the road where a lack of route markers meant directions were needed. The only people around at that time of night were drunken teenage girls, whose accent would probably have been impenetrable even when sober, but their hand waving was clear enough.
A few minutes later the road crossed the A1 and at the next roundabout I passed a sign saying Edinburgh 8 miles. It was some time after 11.00pm and there was a slim chance I might make it for midnight. The road was flat and my legs were still functioning despite having covered 212 miles to that point. The one thing that did make it difficult was the cumulative effects on my arse of being in the saddle for nearly 34 hours over the last 42 and it was my luck that the otherwise harmless route into Edinburgh had some vicious ridges and ruts in it.
Musselburgh came and went and all I needed to do was stay on the A199 for now. Traffic lights were a mixture of frustrating delays and welcome break from the saddle, and I had plenty of them to contend with. Picking out the route markers was harder and harder with the amount of signage littering most junctions and in the last couple of miles I picked out two of them almost at the last moment. One of the final turns took me on the gentlest of uphill gradients up Inchview Terrace and Portobello Road which provoked some loud swearing, and although my local knowledge was non-existent I felt I was very close now.
Portobello merged onto the A1, by now a very non-threatening city street, and then another last minute spotting of the sign diverted me left up Meadowbank. A few hundred yards later a mini-roundabout gave me several options and a large unlit area dead ahead looked very much like the park I was looking for. Still uncertain, I crossed over and saw the hugely welcome sign warning me of a 20mph speed limit in Holyrood Park. A quick glimpse at my watch told me I had ten minutes left but having no idea how big the park was or how far I'd have to go to find the finish I put my foot down.
Passing a white transit van, I was spurred on by a yell of encouragement from the driver but I still couldn't relax. The road gently curved round to the right and through the trees I could make out the lights of various buildings but had no real idea of what I was looking for or when it might appear.
Then all once I was there, being waved into a car park by a marshal and rolling under the unlit Finish arch. My watch showed 11.53. Seven minutes to spare.
Stepping off the bike was a heavenly feeling and my legs were quite wobbly as I made my way unsteadily to the tent containing the timing desk. The finish area was quiet, with only a few support staff closing things down for the night, and no one to notice me finishing. Harshly lit by arc lamps, parts of it were cast into pitch dark.
At the desk I gave them my finishing time, in return for which I was given my finishers medal. Satisfying hefty, it felt good around my neck and I zipped it away under my jersey to keep it safe. The atmosphere in there was good, and the blokes from the Broom Wagon were there to shake my hand along with the pair of riders I'd been shadowing since Crawshaws.
There was food still available despite the late hour, but I was heading to the nearby Travelodge where a hot shower awaited, as well as my parents who had come up to meet me. I collected my rucksack from the luggage van and slowly rode through the Parliament district, completely empty at this time of night.
Stepping through the hotel door was almost as good as crossing the finish line - my dad was in the lobby but approaching us both from behind him was a waiter carrying a steaming hot pepperoni pizza. Perfect timing! After a weary chat in my room with my parents and half of the pizza, I was left to enjoy what may have been the best shower of my life and some sleep.
Surprisingly I didn't sleep that long, probably due to two days of getting up so early. Laying in bed wide awake at 5.30am was a wonderfully peaceful time of reflection, although there is only so much BBC News 24 you can watch in any one stretch. Luckily I'd been left a gigantic food parcel and gradually ploughing through that along with the remains of the pizza kept me busy until it was time to go downstairs to sample the hot breakfast buffet. One giant full English later, we were packing the bike into the boot of the car getting ready to head home.
Just before we left a couple of blokes who had also taken part approached and we had a chat about the ride. They'd both failed to finish due to injury and they seemed to think a lot others withdrew, particularly on the final section. The drive back was a lovely peaceful way to finish the long weekend and I managed a bit of sleep along the way.
It took a couple of days to feel completely normal again and to stop eating double my normal calorie intake but to have made it without mishap after months of training and fretting over how it could have gone wrong it felt like a huge weight was off my shoulders.