Date: Sunday 6th September, 2015
Distance: 360.2km | Elevation: 3,488m
Start kms: 6,671.1km | End kms: 7,031.3km | % complete: 70.3%
Destinations: Manchester — Peak District — Derbyshire — Warwickshire —Northamptonshire — Hertfordshire — London
I fumbled through the excessive number of train tickets I clutched in my fist to make sure I had my outbound stub to hand.
Of course I did.
Gorrod, Hendo and I were only being propelled half-way up the country in one direction by third party transport. When it came time to getting ourselves and our bikes off the train in Manchester Piccadilly, it was going to be all on us — or more specifically our legs — to take us back to London.
This was the Rapha-organised Manchester to London ride, a one-day, 350km route that had been looming in the back of my mind from the day I’d signed up on a dark, cold February evening. Between its beginning and its end lay 120 more kilometres than I’d ever covered in a day, a good 2,000m more climbing than I’d surmounted in one session and several hours of extra time in the saddle overall.
“Am I ready?”, I asked myself over my second plate of spaghetti bolognese at the pre-race pasta party at Rapha’s MCR Cycle Club. The short answer was that I didn’t know and, regardless of the amount of training I was capable of or willing to subject myself to in the run-up, I wouldn’t until the moment I passed beneath the inflatable arch carrying the words ‘FINISH’ the following evening.
The morning came round quickly and the sun was only beginning to rise as we wheeled our bikes out onto the street at 05.30. The streets were quiet except for a handful of the cities endurance clubbers, who wandered the pavements in not-quite-straight lines, arms flung around each others shoulders, one acting as an unreliable crutch to the other. The night had taken its toll, with their faces held in looks of dejection and their eyes staring far off into the distance, whilst seeming to focus on nothing in particular.
It was not the last time I’d see that look today.
As their day finished, ours was just beginning. We were all nervous, but this was manifesting itself as an electric, almost tangible, level of excitement. You could hear it in the cadence of our speech as we quickly asked and answered each others (and our own) questions.
We were also focused. Riders were able to begin setting off from 06.00 and, with daylight precious, we intended on using every available minute we had. We filled our bidons whilst packing our jersey pockets. We ate our quickly-grabbed pastries whilst we dropped our wet bags to the team car. We didn’t waste a second and it wasn’t long before we were crossing the start line and beginning the first leg of the day.
Ushered onto the route in waves, we settled into a peleton of around 20 to 30 riders, following the blinking red light on the seat tube of the rider in front whilst making introductions to fellow riders. Having spent the majority of the year riding in groups of three or four, it was refreshing to find myself amongst a bigger pack. Boxed in, I felt motivated to stay on the back wheel of the rider in front and bolstered by the presence of riders behind me. I also felt protected by the shield of flesh, carbon, aluminium and steel to my right, front and rear, providing a level of security it’s impossible to feel when riding alone.
“I miss riding in big groups like this”, I said to the guys as I powered along.
Another 30km and, as the last back wheel of the group glided further away from my line of sight, I was back-pedalling on my original statement. I’d made a fundamental race day error; I’d followed the pace of the pack rather than what I knew to be my own rhythm and I was starting to flag with more than 300km left to cover.
I felt disheartened and stupid.
This was not the psychological or physical place I had envisioned inhabiting during some of the most visually stunning and at the same time challenging stints of the day: the Peak District. It’s sun-kissed hillsides bathed in the soft pink-orange light from the low morning sun, while a thin, white mist slithered across the valley floors as the temperature began to rise. It would have been enough to take my breath away if that had not been left somewhere on the steep and constant ascent that had brought me to this viewing point.
The fear of peaking far too early was soon usurped by the impending threat of punctures as we took to the legendary Monsal Trail, a flat, traffic-free trail that once carried Midland Railway trains from Manchester to London. The soft crunch of fine gravel floated upwards from our wheels as we passed quarries, limestone rock faces, former train platforms and still-standing viaducts, broken only by the momentary dash through dimly lit, tarmaced tunnels.
Approaching the first feed station, Gorrod, Hendo and I had reestablished our tried and tested pace and we talked tactics to ensure we didn’t succumb to the lure of an extended and indulgent rest stop so early into the ride.
Dismounting, one of us immediately joined the queue for coffee, whilst another dashed to the water station to refill bidons. The third made for the plethora of food that had been provided for all participants: bircher muesli, sausage rolls, cookies, biscuits, cakes, sweets, gels, all by the kilo if you need or wanted it. I exercised self control, taking only a little more than what I really needed before tagging Gorrod out of the coffee queue to allow him to do the same.
We were back in the saddle inside of 15 minutes.
It was a little after 09.30 and the morning had firmly established itself: the sky was bright blue, cloud cover was minimal and the sun had not stopped shining from the moment it had made its way above the hills of the Peak District. The weather was asserting itself and we were confident of close-to-ideal riding conditions for the duration of the ride.
In front and behind us were a further 157 riders, but having established our own cadence we saw few of them, as we made our way southwards via quiet country lanes, meandering towards and away from M1 as we went.
We talked and we joked, riding alongside one another as we did so. We pointed and signalled to all manner of miscreant obstacles, which ranged from cavernous potholes to recently mown-down roadkill. When the opportunity presented itself, we sat up to capture photos from the saddle — something we’ve all become increasingly proficient at in recent months and, with a combination of the route and the weather of the day, a frequent occurrence from sunrise to sunset.
There were times, too, where we all fell into line and put our heads down. I let my mind wander, focusing on nothing in particular and allowing the kilometres, the scenery, the roads and the hours melt away into the looming midday heat.
I felt the sporadic vibration of my Garmin watch in my jersey pocket as it let me know another 5km had passed. Keeping it zipped away meant it was out of sight, removing the temptation to clock-watch. Housing it there also meant I didn’t feel every pulse and so each time I checked it, it would show the distance to be greater than I’d predicted.
The grand setting of Bosworth Hall in Warwickshire once housed the wealthy Dixie family and was graced by Sirs, Lords and Baronets for centuries. Today, it was home to piles of pies for our lunchtime enjoyment, which we were able to enjoy with the luxury of a little more time. There was still little desire (or point) in staying on longer than we needed to with the ever-present threat of the legs seizing up or our bodies beginning to fully understand what we were subjecting them to.
The second 100km were kinder to me than the first and each of us still had the want and the enthusiasm to slowly dial-up the pace when we saw the silhouettes of riders in the distance. We didn’t always rein them in, but those mystery lycra apparitions fuelled us.
So too did the extra food we had stashed away. I played a game with myself, working out what the halfway point between each feed station would be. It was only once I had moved beyond this point that I would be able to reach behind me and retrieve said snack. With any knowledge of distance covered sat behind me along with my snacks, I waited to feel the buzz of my Garmin against my left kidney, trying to count them. However, distracted by everything else around me, I often missed it, allowing time to pass quicker still.
It was at the penultimate feed station dispositions began to fray and tiredness began to not just appear, but march briskly to the fore. No amount of baked potatoes or coconut macaroons could undo the punishment of 200km under a hot September sun. We took a little more time to sit down, fill-up and refuel for what I had marked down as the most psychologically challenging leg of the day.
Although the close of stage four would bring us within relative spitting distance of the M25, and therefore tantalising close to the finish, it felt like there was a gulf between 236km and 350km — not close enough to be able to begin visualising the finish line and far too far from the start line for everything to still feel new enough to drive us to distraction.
I was apprehensively entering a void.
Serendipitous then was the timing of catching up with two riders that I knew. Matt and Jamie had been riding close to us for much of the day, our time at the feed stations overlapping at every point. We had finally caught each other on the road and spent almost all of the section together.
It was the lift we all needed. The three of us had driven one another through to this point and we’d continue doing that until the moment we crossed the finish line, but after ten solid hours of the same faces, the same voices and the same lycra-clad backsides, a change of conversational scenery became as important as our continually transforming surroundings. Matt devoured each hill with an aplomb that was as nauseating as it was impressive at this stage of the day, dragging us up behind him like reluctant iron filings drawn to a magnet. Jamie got down low on the descents, challenging each of us to go that little bit faster. In between all of this, we talked almost constantly. Surely it was during that leg and in those moments that we embodied the spirit of this ride. We were not individuals, riding to beat a time; we were a team, made stronger by our numbers, seeing how far we could take ourselves and trying to beat that.
If not, then at least it was all a distraction from the fact that the sun was slowly being swallowed by the horizon as dusk approached.
Soup soothed the soul and warmed the hands in Hatfield, as we each handled what was already our longest ride on record. At 300km, some of us chose to walk around the room and chat to riders. Others took up a chair in a quiet corner and stared deeply into their coffee, as if its bottom might somehow hold a clue on where to find a final surge of energy.
50km left to go.
It sounded so small, but on top of the ground we’d already covered it was going to feel a lot longer. We donned our gilets and our arm warmers for the second time that day and activated our lights for the first. We hadn’t quite lost the sun, but tree cover and a lack of street lights meant we’d need the extra help soon after leaving the final feed station.
As we moved into Enfield, things started to feel a little more familiar. The unknown, undiscovered and likely never to be seen again lanes of Middle England were gone. In their place came a sensory symphony. Street lights and neon-lit shopfronts blurred together as we sped past, whilst a never-ending stream of blinking brake lights snaked off into the distance. The dull, stop-start drone of the traffic-laden roads was shattered only by the occasional car horn or the high-pitched whine of a pedestrian crossing.
It wasn’t so much a rude awakening — by now we were too far gone to be re-awoken — but a numb experience from which I felt a little distanced.
Inside London proper, more and more traffic lights meant more and more cyclists were able to catch-up with one another, and our group of three became 15 by the time the illuminated ArcelorMittal Orbit sculpture of the Olympic Park came into sight.
That was our cue to pick up the pace for the final time.
We took to the front of the group, working into heavier gears that hadn’t been touched for hours. The other riders followed suit. Our pace crept upwards as we broke through the 30kph barrier and kept going until we were just shy of 40kph. Excited by the prospect of achieving what had seemed impossible at the beginning of the year and carried by the unexpected speed, Gorrod flew past the exit of the roundabout that would take us past Hackney Marshes and onto the Olympic Park straight.
“I’ll catch you up”, I heard him shout, as he disappeared onto the other side of the roundabout.
Quickly back to a trio, we were out of our saddles and sprinting down Temple Mills Lane. We had nothing left, running on vapours and adrenaline as we followed the Lee Valley VeloPark walkway around to the right. A short, sharp bend and before we even had a moment to realise what was happening, we passed beneath the finishing arch. It wasn’t until I’d stopped that I heard the music, the cowbells and the cheering of the crowd. It was done.
It’s difficult to describe the feeling of completing such a long and momentous ride. There is undoubtedly a sense of elation, but it becomes buried under layers of shock, relief, awe and waves of exhaustion. It’s difficult to untangle it all and try to begin making sense of it and, if I were to try, I’d likely drain much of its magic.
Better to just bask in its warm glow and wait for entry to the 2016 event to open.
The Rapha Manchester to London ride is held to raise money for the charity Ambitious About Autism. Working with young people around the UK, they provide services to those affected by autism, as well as raise awareness and understanding at a public and political level. There’s still time to donate by clicking here.