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Journal

Filtering by Tag: Adventure

THE NOT QUITE NORTH COAST 500 | PT. 1

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"I'll be honest with you. The Full English is good, but it's not £9.00 good. Now the smoked salmon and scrambled egg is better value at £8.00 – it's quite substantial, you get a bit more for your money".

It was half past eight on a Friday night in Euston station and, as we stood outside our cabin and room for the night, our train guard, Robert, gave us a thorough rundown of our breakfast options for the following morning. 

"And then you've got porridge with honey, granola with yoghurt. Four porridge and four coffees? No problem at all. 

And what time would you like to to come and wake you up? We're due in at 8:38am, so a knock and breakfast at 07:30? Perfect".

Single file, heads bowed and torsos angled slightly off centre, we walked down the narrow corridor of the Caledonian Sleeper Train, squeezed into our four bunk room and climbed into our beds. 

We were heading for The Scottish Highlands and, by the time the sun was up and Robert was bringing us our breakfast, we'd be there. 

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It wasn't all that long ago that this trip was just a proposition; a precarious pipe dream that was always intended but never quite executed. 

The four of us had been looking at taking on The North Coast 500 by bike for a few years, but it took the prospect of one of us leaving the UK to force us into action. And even then we were a little too late; available holiday was few and far between and we'd slipped into the portion of the year where the weather had become even more temperamental than usual and daylight had dwindled. 

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So it was with smiles on our faces and a sense of relief that we rode out of Inverness, passing its expansive lochs under blue skies and a bright, low-lying sun.

A-roads and lanes are one and the same in these parts and it wasn't long before the slow trickle of traffic dried up. Any obvious signs of inhabitants became sparse – a farm house here and a seemingly unreachable cottage there were fleeting specks on otherwise rugged and weathered hillsides and moorlands. 

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It was somewhere between 70 and 80km that we saw the first building that might serve food. We were keen to push on into what was our longest day of the three, but no one liked our odds on finding anywhere else in the next few hours and, more importantly, before the biggest and toughest leg of the day.

Wheeling up outside Ledgowan Lodge Hotel, we clopped and clattered under the watchful gaze of stuffed deer heads and what looked to be the hotels only two guests to their reception. Not looking at our watches, it's difficult to know how long we spent in the high-ceilinged, empty-except-for-us dining room, but if food and drink is an acceptable unit of time, it was a sandwich and two pots of coffees. Whatever the unit of measurement, it was long enough for the weather to swing from the bright and sunny to the wet and misty. 

To begin with, it wasn't raining – the air was just wet. The mist combined with forward momentum to slowly but surely make sure every accessible inch of us and our bikes became suitably saturated. As we pedalled on, the wet air became more assertive, transforming from droplets into globules that were unarguably heavy rain. 

A well-timed puncture made sure we were able to appreciate it in all its torrential glory.

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"Whatever happens, we have to do the longest route option on day one. It's the only way we'll be able to do Bealach na Bà".

Fickle weather and limited light meant Hendo, our routemaster, had planned several routes for each of our three days in The Highlands. Knowing our options to get back to our starting point were limited beyond the bike, it gave us contingency plans should we need them. But there was one iconic climb we refused to side-step having come this far: Bealach na Bà.

Idiots.

Otherwise known as Applecross Pass, this almost-10km stretch of ascending, winding tarmac is widely billed as the toughest climb in Britain. With 120km in our legs and our ham and cheese sandwiches having just begun to settle, we reached its base.

The climb is a con man. And like any con man worth their salt, it introduces itself amicably, a gentle, steady climb taking you up and away from Loch Kishorn. You warm to it; almost start to enjoy it.  

But despite the friendly introduction, the early warning signs are there, forcing you to quieten the voice in your head that's telling you it might not be as bad as you thought. 

"Road normally impassable in wintry conditions" read a red, all-caps sign next to an open gate that felt as though it might be closed at any minute. 

It was just before the halfway point of the climb, where the road took a harsh right-hand hairpin, that the climb showed its true colours. 

The road banked. 

There was a headwind.

And, after 20 minutes of grinding and pedal dancing, you could see in no uncertain terms just how far away the top of the climb remained.

I let out a groan as the weight of my saddle bag and the harsh gradient of the climb forced my front tyre from the tarmac in a momentary wheelie. My knuckles whitened as I gripped my handlebars tightly to counteract the strong wind that was determined to turn said wheel to a 45 degree angle. 

I watched as cars carefully crawl pass me. I wondered how feasible holding onto the side of a vehicle and letting them drag me up was.

Approaching the final three hairpins of the climb, I looked back over my left shoulder at what we'd left behind. If the process of reaching the top of this climb hadn't devoid me of almost every molecule of oxygen floating through my body, what lay below might have taken my breath away. 

A harsh cliff face plummeted into a valley where a river ran like a loan vein back toward the loch we'd left behind and below in the distance. 

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In another context it might've been beautiful.  In this one, it was drowned out by the sound of my heart beating in my ears, the ruthless wind whistling round them and obscured by the burning sensation in my eyes from the sweat as it relentlessly ran into them.

Despite beginning to imagine there wasn't one, we reached the top of the climb. Although after such an ordeal, it feels fairer to call it a summit. 

It was windy up there too. We were blown about as we admired the views into the valleys below and watched the clouds move quickly across the sky (which we weren't so much below as in). 

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And so to the fruit of any labourious uphill labour: the descent. A smooth and narrow road traced the side of the mountain over 10km. It unfolded smoothly before us. There were no surprises. Every turn could be suitably anticipated; every straight prepared for. There were no cars obstructing the route to the bottom. Nothing slowing us down on the gleeful race to our second food stop.

Apart from a puncture 500m out. But not even that could ruin the journey back to the bottom.

The adrenaline rush of the descent, the caffeine kick from the round of cappuccinos and the sugar spike from a hefty wedge of cake at our second and final stop were all short lived and did little to bring us back to life. As we sat around the table and made sure our lights were ready for the inevitable ride into the dark, we sighed, we shook our heads, we raised our eyes to the ceiling and, every now and then, we looked at each other and laughed.

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We were down, but not out.

But we were close.   

We worked our way along Scotland's undulating west coast. Snaking in and out from its shoreline, we did our best to avoid the increasing number of sheep sitting by the side of the road. They were coiled springs; nervous, on edge and ready to bolt across our path at any given moment. 

The large, dusky skies were a deep, dark purple-blue. They provided an epic and seemingly endless backdrop as we meandered through marshland and through and between streams, rivers and ponds. 

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The major climbs of the day were done, but the hills hadn't finished. We rolled our way up and down the final 40km and, as darkness finally set in, so did the cramp. We only needed to look at an incline for our calves and hamstrings to begin tightening and if the last few kicks weren't the final nail in the coffin, they were almost definitely the penultimate one. 

It was heads-down hour. The roads were quiet and so were we. We'd all silently agreed that this final leg was to be tackled alone, at our own marching pace. We'd reconvene at the top of climbs and chip away at this, staring intently at the narrow strip of road illuminated by our lights as bats began their working day overhead, bit by bit until it was done.

At the top of the final climb, we were two of four. We stood, waited and listened. After a few minutes, we wondered whether cramp had finally got the better of Saul and Hendo and forced them off the bike. A few minutes more and we saw the flash of two lights and the silence was broken of what we thought was the sound of cleats scraping and scratching on tarmac.

As they neared, we realised it wasn't. It was the unfamiliar but unmistakable sound of a chain and derailleur dragging against the road. Somewhere in the final ascent, an inner-tube that Saul had tucked into the top of his saddle bag had worked its way loose and into his rear cassette. That had then ripped  his hanger clean off, leaving his derailleur and chain dragging limply and helplessly along the ground.

We looked at the issue and knew we could do nothing. We still had 5km to our finish point. As had been the case for much of the day, there was nothing and no one around.

Our only option was to get to our finish point by any means necessary. That meant freewheeling and scooting the remainder of the way. Thankfully, for the first time that day, the wind and the road were on our side. 

We sandwiched Saul between the three of us. One at the front, another at the back and the final to his right, we rode tentatively, squeezing the brakes as we were pushed by the wind downhill towards a hot meal.

Put in a quiet corner of a busy restaurant in Torridon (is this where half of The Highlands population had been all day?), we tried our best to formulate something that resembled a plan over haggis, pies, sticky toffee puddings and beers. 

We didn't get very far and much of what made its way out of our mouths as words made little sense and tailed off partway through.

This was a challenge for tomorrow.

Putting our wet kit into the airing cupboard and over every radiator available in our accommodation for the evening, we heard a loud pop and a slow, constant hiss from the hallway.

Saul's tyre had burst, signalling the official end of day one. 

View the route. 

LDN-BMH-OXD | Day 2.

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Date: Sunday 2nd August, 2015
Distance: 175.5km | Elevation: 1,700m
Start kms: 5,369.5km | Finish kms: 5,785.4km | % complete: 57.9%

Destinations: Bournemouth — Amesbury — Kintbury — Oxford

Despite our best efforts too cover something more savoury, there was only one topic of conversation taking place over our eggs at the breakfast table: the degree of discomfort we were likely to experience during the initial moments of our chamois (and their contents) making contact with our saddles. 

The general consensus was that it would be high on the pre-existing scale. However, due in no small part to pain giving way to an incurable numbness at around the 200km mark the previous day, the anticipation was exceedingly greater than the reality, as is so often the case. 

On the subject of backsides, if I’d needed any further confirmation that I am in no way a breakaway rider or chain leader, today provided it in spades. Fulfilling my position as ‘man at the back of the pack’ in earnest, I added to my extensive and ever-growing collection of #ForeverButtPhotos — an expansive catalogue of my time spent trying to keep pace with a well-oiled, long-distance machine and an iron-willed, resolute (read: stubborn) accomplice. 

I, on the other hand, am a plodder. 

I’ve made peace with the fact that I won’t win the race — I won’t even come near the podium — but I will finish it. And I’ll most likely capture some photos of it along the way. 

Success and achievement operates on a relative scale, it would seem, adhering to the law of diminishing returns. Whilst doing something once is an accomplishment, the second time its repetition. By the third, fourth or fifth time round, it’s almost become habit and that’s just another word for routine. 

Case in point: somewhere between deciding to cycle 10,000km in less than a year and signing-up to a one-day 350km sportive, my perception of distance has become somewhat warped. It wasn’t long ago that a three-figure ride was a solid effort, whilst hitting anywhere between 130-150km wasn’t just cause for celebration, but an excuse to buy a commemorative jersey.

Today, we were discussing the 175km ride as a ‘shorter one’ and planning our first rest stop beyond 70km, depending on what we happened upon along the way. 

But that’s the wonderful thing about cycling. The ability to go further allows you to cover new, undiscovered routes again and again, helping the old and well-troden feel entirely new. 

Speaking from ongoing experience, it sure beats doing laps of the same park week in and week out. 

Continuing to be diligent in our calls, few potholes, bumps, shards of glass or collections of gravel were left unidentified. Whilst Gorrod and I were traditional in our identification, choosing the traditional and authoritative point in the direction of the offending object. I noticed that Hendo, on the other hand, had far more of a flourish in his gesticulation, his point being more akin to Sacha Baran Cohen’s Bruno and his nish-nish finger. This is the kind of thing I’m talking about. 

As we passed north of Farnborough, we reached the top of our final real climb of the day. Placing myself back in the saddle, I rounded a bend to the loud and unmistakable cry of Hendo as he looked out before us: 

“ROAD PORN!“ 

He was right, too. 

Straight ahead of us was what looked to be a never-ending descent that led into a gradual right-hand bend. We could see exactly where the road led for the next two to three kilometres and the direction was definitely downwards. The decline was long and straight, veering slightly upwards and around to the left before a follow-up descent. The road was smooth, wide and completely clear. 

We didn’t hang around. 

Straight back out of our saddles, we were hammering into our big rings to build-up speed and momentum, aiming to capitalise on this glorious stretch. In hindsight, I wish I’d stopped for ten seconds to take a few photographs not only to publish here, but to look back on. Alas, I was greedy. I wanted to take it on there and then and the excitement got the better of me. 

I’ve since learnt the name of the hill: Chain Hill Road. I may be being slightly hyperbolic - and it may just be because it’s still so fresh in my mind — but I’m intent on finding my way back to that little stretch to take it on again. It’s well worth going out of your way for and was the best five to seven minutes of the weekend. 

It’s also a great spot to push the boundaries on your top speed. I was knocking on the door of 80kph, but didn’t quite get there. 

This time. 

Buoyed considerably by the descent and the growing number of signs for Oxford, we fell in-line and settled in for a prolonged period of chain-gang riding. Hendo took the front, whilst Gorrod settled in behind him. I took my usual spot on the wheel of the last man. After 15 minutes, and with the wind behind us, we took a left at the junction and Gorrod let us know we’d managed to maintain a tour pace for the last segment, averaging 44kph for quarter of an hour. 

It’s amazing what you can do with a tailwind. 

The final few kilometres into Oxford-proper kept us on quiet country lanes. Holding more fields and cars, the sight and sound of three police cars speeding up and past us, with their sirens wailing and their engines revving, was a surprise. Living in central London, and cycling twice a day on Old Kent Road, I’ve not only become used, but  numb to the the panic-inducing feeling that a siren can inspire. However, riding through the sunny, idyllic and expansive countryside of Oxfordshire provides a very different setting and, seeing them in that context, is incredibly unsettling. 

After a very brief stop at Zappi’s Bike Cafe — our final destination — we boarded the train back to Paddington.  Unknowingly choosing the silent carriage, we rustled through our post-ride snacks, complained far too loudly about our Garmins not synching with our phones and drowsily snapped at one another for now other reason than we were tired. 

Meanwhile, I silently subdued the creeping forbidding feeling that ebbed and flowed through the front of my mind: the knowledge that I still had to make the 15km ride back home through the late-afternoon London traffic. 

It was worth it though. 

It’s always worth it. 

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Details:

Shropshire Highlands Cycling Challenge 2015.

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Date: Sunday 14th June, 2015
Distance: 93.2km | Elevation: 962m
Destination: Shropshire

Start kms: 3,717.7km | Finish kms: 3,810.9 | % complete: 38.1%

In an age where everyone’s looking for a new challenge to add to their list and people place increasing levels of importance on experience, races (be they bike-based, running-oriented, obstacle-laden or some combination of all 3 and more) feel as though they have never been more popular. 

As a result, it’s often difficult to find one that isn’t over-subscribed, over-priced or sponsored to within an inch of its life.

So when Luke sent me the link to the wonderfully lo-fi website of The Shropshire Highlands Cycling Challenge 2015, I was sold from the minute I saw it geocities-esque landing page.

No tags, no numbers, no timing chips, no sign posts — for your £11.00 entry fee, you were sent a paper copy of the step-by-step directions for the course and had access to a Mr. Kipling cake and a cup of tea at each of your three rest stops.

That was it.

No Powerbars or energy gels in sight, and if you wanted a sandwich, you’d need to make sure you’d packed the extra change.

After an evening of rain, we awoke to a dry and sunny morning. Porridge down, jersey pockets stuffed with tools and inner-tubes and bikes racked on the back of the car, we were on the start line for 08.00.

It was there that I realised I had left my Garmin on the bedroom floor. It was time to fall back onto my iPhone and Strava.

But there was a problem. I had next to no phone signal and, despite my best efforts to record, the app insisted on auto-pausing every 10 seconds. I spent the first 10km (and the first climb of the day) angrily thumping my screen, willing it to work.

I realise all this technology-reliance flies in the spirit of the events off the grid approach, but with 10,000km to cover this year I very much subscribe to the Strava Prove It and Strava Or It Didn’t Happen credos. Sadly, with Strava’s signal dropping in and out, that was difficult to do.

I’ll leave it there and concentrate on the ride itself after making one last point: my stats fell around 15km short and, somewhere in the hills of Shropshire, I lost 400m of climbing.

I will claw them back.

Having carried out numerous breathing exercises, I was able to restore my inner-calm and begin appreciating the unbelievable scenery being showcased at the top of the numerous climbs of the course.

Sadly, I don’t know the actual name of one particular highlight, but as a local, Luke was able to tell me its moniker: Top of the World. At the top of this climb was some of the most exciting and unusual riding I’ve been able to experience this year. Surrounded by valleys and hills, the road before you morphs from compressed tarmac to loose gravel soon after reaching its top. Whilst the probability of experiencing at least one puncture increases exponentially, so too do the number of sheep and cows freely roaming the green grasses either side of our route.

Eventually, the tranquility gives way to cattle grates (never a pleasant experience on the posterior or the forearms) and an incredibly hairy downhill section.

Those were two of the major risks we were facing on the challenge: high likelihood of punctures on messy roads following heavy rain the day before and steep descents on unknown roads.

The latter is always a recipe for potential disaster as confidence and excitement fuse to become arrogance and you find yourself misjudging the sharpness of the corner, the surface or the road or amount of oncoming traffic waiting for you on the other side.

It’s never worth it and thankfully we didn’t fall prey to either.

A risk I had not factored in, however, was wildlife and — more specifically — insects. Somewhere between our short jaunt over the Welsh borders and back into England, an incredibly acrobatic wasp was able to work it’s way up, over and into my not-exactly-baggy lycra jersey. Feeling it buzzing away somewhere down near my left love-handle, I clawed at my jersey to waft my uninvited passenger back out into the world.

It seemed to work. The buzzing subsided and I was able to focus on the next 5 miles to the final rest stop. Dismounting for my third instalment of the Mr. Kipling range (Viennese Whirl this time round, if you’re asking), the vibrations of wasp ricocheting between skin and lycra began again in earnest. Before I was able to panic-strip and indecently expose myself to a community hall filled with people, it had gone in for the kill and stung me.

I watched as it half-heartedly flew towards a window, already on its last legs.

On the subject of last legs, the last leg of the challenge brought with it the most challenging hill of the day. As a general rule, the last hill is always the most difficult regardless of gradient or categorisation purely because your legs are already storing everything from the kilometres that have come before it.

Anything left should and will be left on that final upward stretch.

In this case, I’m confident that this climb would have been considered the hardest of the day regardless of where it was placed. If you’re unwilling to take my word for it, I hope the name will convince you: Goat Hill.

I do not know the etymology of the name, but having ridden up it I can take an educated as to how it came to be. Quickly running out of gears, any hopes of standing out of the saddle for a little more power were quickly stymied, with my back wheel beginning to spin freely as it lost traction with the road.

Luke, borrowing his Dad’s bike for the ride, had forgone cleats for trainers and stirrup pedals. To have powered through on that set-up was impressive, especially as I watched more than one rider lose grip, then momentum and finally their balance on the sharper, steeper bends, forcing them to walk the remainder.

The Mr. Kipling range sampled, hills conquered, two countries covered (just, but a border crossing is a border crossing — just Ireland left to go now) and rain, crashes and punctures avoided, we were greeted beneath Ludlow Castle with a medal and the promise of lasagne at the end of our short drive home.

Oh and by the way, learn from Luke’s mistake: you won’t want to bring the extra change for that sandwich. They’re not so good.

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Details:

Smelling the roses.

10,000km.cc

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Date: Sunday 7th June, 2015
Distance: 53.4km | Elevation: 543m
Destinations: New Cross – Eynsford – New Cross

Start kms: 3,554.3km | Finish kms: 3,607.7 | % complete: 36.1%

Actually, in this case it was a case of admiring the poppies. 

Fresh from my ride with Hendo into Knatts Valley, I’d been reminded of just how fantastic greater London and its abundance of countryside was looking. For reasons that I am entirely unaware, the poppies had taken over a number of fields with full force on the way out towards Eynsford (see previous post) and the results were nothing short of spectacular. 

I decided that Ashley would no doubt appreciate this and that I had to show her. She even wore her floral Freddie Merckx jersey as a fitting tribute. 

Was this all a ruse to squeeze in another few kms before the week was through? 

I couldn’t possibly say. 

We both enjoyed it though. 

Details:

Up in the highlands.

10,000km.cc

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Date: Wednesday 27th May, 2015
Distance: 46.3km | Elevation: 459m
Destinations: Gleneagles – Muthill – Gleneagles

Start kms: 3,337.3km | Finish kms: 3,383.6km | % complete: 33.8%

Mid-way into a 10-day UK road trip, Ashley and I spent 2 nights in Gleneagles Hotel, where it turns out it’s not only possible to while away your day in spas, restaurants, bars between golf and shooting sessions, but also to hire Condor bikes and explore the surrounding roads of Auchterader. 

Gleneagles being the Mecca of all things golf, I naturally chose to body-swerve the greens and fairways entirely in favour of some Scottish roads. 

With the help of a couple of Garmins pre-loaded with several routes, Ashley and I set out to explore Strowan Road and its surroundings. 

The roads were as quiet as you’d expect given the fact that they surrounded an idyllic retreat and the undulations were as present as you’d assume them to be in an area named The Highlands. 

What I had failed to anticipate was the considerable contrast in temperature compared to London. A month of committing to attire consisting of bib shorts and jersey-only meant that I’d turned up woefully unprepared. My true colours as a soft, southern twat were at risk of being exposed, made immediately obvious to anyone that might care to gaze longer than a couple of seconds on my goosebump-covered, purple/red-coloured arms and chattering teeth.

Ashley had already laid claim to the only vaguely suitable cycling jumper I had, so I strictly adhered to Rule #5.

The Condor Italia RC bikes we’d hired were by no means top of the range – and I suppose a £2,500 frameset, one of Condor’s higher-spec numbers, is an unreasonable expectation for a morning jaunt – but they were comfortable runners. 

This comfort was made all the better by the addition of bar-mounted Garmin cycle computers. Whilst I’ve benefitted from the navigational prowess of the Garmin Edge in the past, I’d never used one first-hand and I was entirely sold on the merits of using it over a mounted iPhone – battery life, size and clarity and three of numerous realms it trumps the latter. 

The Scottish scenery had put on the most ominous, looming, moody outfit it could find for the morning. The clouds hung dark, grey and heavy over the surrounding hills and valleys. The threat of rain was constant. 

With so little in the way of weather protection, I was living dangerously, but it made for some truly phenomenal views and superb panoramic shots. I was willing to risk being battered by the rain for both. 

Thankfully, it did manage to hold off for the majority of the ride, with increasingly frequent droplets welcoming us back to the hotel before an all-out downpour. 

That was our cue to hit the spa. 

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Details:

Mitie London Revolution | Day 2.

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Date: Sunday 17th May, 2015
Distance: 166.4km | Elevation: 1,802m
Destinations: Ascot – Chiswell Green – Lee Valley — New Cross

Start kms: 3,087.8km | Finish kms: 3,254.2km | % complete: 32.5%

With the coming of our second day of cycling came the addition a third rider to our group. 

Freddie, a friend of Saul’s, had missed the first day of riding due to work commitments, so had spent the wee hours of Sunday morning driving out from London to Ascot with his bike to meet us. Arriving just after we’d finished for breakfast, we were introduced and I marvelled at what was a solid ten out of ten for effort. If I had spent my Saturday working and not set out with the pack, I’d have most likely forgone an early start and a day on the bike in favour of a lie-in and a leisurely brunch.

With everyone adhering to their own slightly less stringent start times — no doubt thanks to the draw of the breakfast buffet — the start line was considerably less congested and we were able to continue the northward trajectory we’d started the previous day relatively quickly. 

Being British, I’m not sure I’ve escaped one post since the beginning of this year without mentioning the weather.

Rather than apologise, I’m going to justify myself.

If we exclude January, as I didn’t so much touch a bike for those 31 days due to injury, I have 3 and a half months of riding on record. In that time, I’ve banked around 3,000km and a considerable amount of that has been on long, weekend rides. Of those longer rides, there is only one morning that had me taking on the rain. Given the fact I rode 1,968km in February and March, I find this pretty remarkable. 

I suppose the convoluted point I’m trying to make is that this was yet another sunny day. I therefore continued working diligently on my perma-kit. 

Crossing the Thames for the third (and penultimate) time that weekend, we were all moving along at a reasonable pace and, more importantly, feeling comfortable.

I’ve often viewed long cycles as an invitation to devour an incomprehensible amount of food at the end of each day and that tends to hang around well into the following morning, leaving me feeling sick and slow. Having made that mistake numerous times before (both whilst cycling and when just going about my day-to-day business), I’d avoided eating to the point of paralysis at dinner the night before and at breakfast that morning.

Unsurprisingly, I was feeling the benefits. My mind was focused less on keeping food down and more on taking down hills. 

And there were a lot of them in the first half of the ride. There was less in total than the day before, but the ones that had been thrown in were certainly more of a challenge. 

During each appearance thus far, Saul has found himself lying on the tarmac at one point of a ride or another, so it’s only fair I celebrate our first crash-free ride together. It being the second day, the heat and hills combined were taking their toll on some. Legs began to give-way and riders snaked their way to the top of the steeper climbs, we watched as one poor chap reached the peak of a hill, only to momentarily lose his balance and, in almost-slow-motion, take a tumble.

He was fine, if not a little embarrassed 

Thankfully, we all remained on two wheels, but Saul was beginning to experience some pain in his knee. The symptoms sounded remarkably similar to what I’d experienced at the beginning of the year. 

Fuelled by Jelly Tots (an essential ride snack as of their introduction during this event), we looped our way back eastwards via Kings Langley, skimming St. Albans before abruptly finding ourselves riding parallel to the M25. 

We were almost back. 

The usual traffic light and congestion rule applied itself from around Enfield and into Lower Edmonton. Whilst navigating the queues,  we wheeled past someone dealing with a puncture what could only have been 3km from the finish. We offered assistance, but she insisted she was fine. 

Making a concerted effort to avoid anything that looked even remotely like glass, a pothole or a jagged stone, we crossed the line to the soundtrack of something upbeat, bass-driven and energetic. 

I want it to have been something classic and somewhat ironic, like ‘Eye of the Tiger’. However, it was probably a forgettable EDM chart topper by someone like David Guetta. 

What I do know is that medals were donned, photos were taken and back-slaps were exchanged. 

Freddie, who had only managed to do day one of the previous years event, had now completed the set and got himself a medal. He just needed to figure out how to get back to Ascot to collect his car. 

Safe to say it wouldn’t be on two wheels. 

Having had a bit of food and drink, Saul and I climbed (and at this stage, this isn’t poetic license, it’s a factual description of how it felt to throw a leg over the frame and place our backsides back onto the saddle) onto the bikes and began the relatively short, but psychologically long journey home.

Somewhere around South Tottenham, Saul’s knee could take no more and, rather than risk doing any long-term damage, he made for the overground — an incredibly sensible decision based on my experience. 

Me, I conquered the final 25km that got me home but after 2 days of unadulterated cycling, I can’t say I enjoyed it. A solid 5km along the gravel paths of Regents Canal had me on-edge as I incessantly visualised having to deal with a last-leg puncture. Having a backpack full of overnight clothes strapped to my back didn’t help matters, either.

The irritation and annoyance was mostly tiredness though and the warm glow of achievement quickly washed away any dissonance I was experiencing as soon as I crossed the threshold of my front door.

I’ll certainly be signing up for next years ride.

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Details:

Green lanes and flat whites: a ride with the folks.

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Date: Saturday 18th April, 2015
Distance: 59.4km | Elevation: 473m
Destinations: Jersey (St. Ouen – St. Catherines – St. Aubin – St. Ouen)

Start kms: 2,305.6km | Finish kms: 2,365km | % complete: 23.7%

Whenever I’m lucky enough to go home to Jersey and go out for a cycle, I’m always reminded of a now over-used Hemingway quote taken from a letter to his family:

“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them…you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through”

It’s true — and not just of cycling versus driving. I’ve walked, skateboarded, run and driven what feels like all of Jerseys roads countless times whilst growing up, but nothing makes me appreciate their ups and downs, their smooth or uneven surfaces like a bike.

8 months ago, my Dad hit his head whilst bording a plane from London back to Jersey. Mid-flight, he began to feel odd – tired, agitated, removed from the situation. Moments later, he was in the midst of a fit and wouldn’t come-to until safely in the back of an ambulance, on the way to Jerseys hospital.

Thankfully, he was ultimately fine, but to get to that point has meant a lot of rest and patience – not an easy ask of an active, excitable guy with a love of being outside and making things happen.  

Sometimes proactively and sometimes enforced, it’s been a case of slow, incremental steps. 

This weekend saw him take a big one: the first time back on his road bike, cleats and all.

Having completed a number of short rides on his sturdier and, to him, more trustworthy, mountain bike with my Mum, he wasn’t just ready, but raring to go.

He was reserved though, at least to begin with, forcing me himself to hold back and renew his acquaintance with the feel of the saddle, the reactiveness of the handlebars, the lightness of the frame, the abruptness of the brakes. 

Before long, though, I saw him visibly relax, as he began taking one hand away from his handlebars, placing it on his knee and turning around to chat to me. It’s true what they say about riding a bike – you don’t forget, it taking little time for muscle memory to kick-in and make 8 months dissipate away to nothing. 

For me, my lungs and legs would be more than happy to remind me of the time off, but if Dad was experiencing it, he didn’t let it show, taking on his first hills for months and chipping away at them until he reached the top.

This was Mums first long ride for almost a year, too, and one of her longest to-date. As we reached the half-way mark – 30km with no sign of stopping – she’d really found her stride and was happy to tell us as much: “I’m really enjoying this!”. 

It was great to hear and even better to watch as we followed the islands coast and stopped for the obligatory cake and coffee such rides dictate. 

Weighed down, we had the choice of cutting back in from the coast and heading home in a more direct manner. With 45km in the bank and another 15km on the shorter route, I wouldn’t have blamed them for choosing that option. We’d already far-exceeded my expectations for the first time out.

But they were insistent that we continue to trace the coast, taking on its 2 climbs in the process.

We broke no records, we shattered no PBs and we certainly didn’t give everything we had.

What we did do was enjoy each other’s company, make the most of a beautiful afternoon and re-establish a level of confidence not only in my dad, but in my mum as well.

It’s good to have them back. 

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Details:

The Stag | Day 2.

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Date: Friday, 10th April, 2015
Distance: 130.5km | Elevation: 1,775m
Destinations: Morebattle — Duns — Haddington — Edinburgh

Start kms: 2,104.0km | Finish kms: 2,234.5km | % complete: 22.3%

The second day started early, at around 6am. The sun was still rising over the hills of the surrounding valley  and the mist and frost had yet to dissipate from the impending heat of the day. 

Looking out at the view from the bedroom window, it was nothing short of beautiful and completely chased away any weariness that ran the risk of creeping in. It also made for a picturesque backdrop on which to share our breakfast: half a CLIF bar and a cup of tea. 

Our first rest stops opening time was what dictated our departure. The 130km route we were taking had us away from any form of town or village for tens of kilometres at a time. Running light on any form of snacks, we had little room for unplanned breaks and therefore slowly packed and got ourselves on the road for a little before half past seven. 

Once again, the wind was behind us and, it still being early, there was little traffic on the road. Little soon became none as we left the A and B roads behind and planted ourselves on country lanes for what would be the majority of the day. 

Our pre-breakfast route was an excellent warm-up for the day, with nothing but relatively flat roads interspersed with a few small hills to break us in. We wheeled into Dunns and spotted the sign of our haggis roll purveyor. 

I’m not sure what it is about small villages, but there seems to be a real affinity for cafes located in garden centres. This isn’t the first time I’ve experienced these dual-purpose businesses on cycles, but this was definitely the friendliest encounter so far. 

Wheeling our bikes past the piled-up bags of compost and through the stacked lines of plant pots, all of the staff greeted us warmly, despite having only opened their doors minutes earlier and no doubt still comprehending the prospect of another day of work. I’d imagine the somewhat novel sight of two dishevelled men in skin-tight clothing contributed to their smiles. The glorious sunshine probably helped, too.

The only irk from anyone came as the result of Gorrods order: “A haggis and egg roll? Well I’ve never heard that before”. Given the limited range of breakfast accoutrements in existence – bacon, sausage, egg, beans, tomatoes – we were somewhat surprised that any pairing with haggis would come as a curveball. These guys either lacked a creative intrigue, or Gorrod really had strayed far from the Scottish breakfast track. 

Regardless, we’d only been in Scotland a few hours and he’d already rubbed the locals up the wrong way. 

We were right about there not being anything beyond our first rest stop. I’ve never been on a ride that doesn’t pass the odd local shop, newsagent, cafe or pub every 10km or so. I suppose that’s the result of the majority of my rides taking place in and around the M25. In this case, though, the 50km that followed saw more farmhouses than public houses; more road kill than cars. 

The roads themselves had begun to slope upwards considerably, with hills being more of a level you’d expect from a day with circa. 1,700m of climbing. It was the kind of climbing that I enjoy, with short, sharp bursts of uphill that for the most part, allowing you to attack  before resting your legs on the freewheel provided by the descent. Yes, at times it meant struggling skywards at 15kph for several minutes, but for every 5 minutes of that, you benefitted from 10 minutes of sailing through Scotland’s quiet roads at 50kph. 

Civilisation was reestablished at 95km in the town of Haddington and with it, we encountered our first set of traffic lights since Kings Cross. You quickly forget the existence of such things on getting out into the countryside, meaning you don’t appreciate their absence until you find yourself slowly approaching one, willing it to go green before you need to un-clip.

Coffees consumed, our final 35km was back towards the coast of the fairly aptly named Musselburgh. Whilst the name suggests a rustic, coastal town, home to shellfish, fishermen and trawlers, I can assure you that it was more akin to a tired British seaside town (although the internet informs me that, as one of Scotlands oldest towns, it’s known for both its golf course and its racecourse). 

On our approach to Edinburgh, we were both determined to hit the all-important Gran Fondo distance of 130km, but soon realised we were running out of road. The city centre was fast-approaching and we still had some ground to cover before it was official (to both us and to the Strava app, which would be officiating). I wasn’t helped by my GPS dropping off in a tunnel, costing me several hundred metres.

An extra lap of the town centre was needed to take us over the line. We jokingly referred to it as our victory lap, moments before Gorrod – choosing to ignore the designated cycle lanes and keep to the roads of Edinburgh – discovered a still fairly new addition to the city: its tramlines. 

Both of his wheels locked in to the thin metal grate, leaving him with no room for manoeuvre. With little option other than to hit the tarmac, I watched as he slid down our final descent, closely followed by his bike. 

100m from the finish and we had our first casualty. 

Stag down. 

Dragging his bike, and himself, over to the pavement he should have been riding on originally, we assessed the damage. The bike was fine, with no damage to the wheels or frame. The important information established, we then turned to Gorrod, who had succumb to a little road rash and a hard knock to the hip, but little else. 

Thankfully, we were more than capable of free-wheeling to the finish and Gorrod was still more than able to participate in a weekend of Stag-based activities.

My total distance flicked over to 130km seconds before I unclipped at our final stop, Fortitude Coffee, where we both toasted an almost-successful morning of riding over a cup of delicious coffee and a couple of shared slices of cake. 

As we did, I synced my ride data from Garmin to Strava and was horrified (and I’m somewhat shamed to admit that this is not an understatement) to discover I had in fact logged 129.9km.

129.97, to be exact.

30m short. 

That equates to around 5 seconds of riding. 

That tunnel had cost me dear.

Gorrod laughed (too much, if you ask me. He seemed to be taking some level of enjoyment from it).

I began drafting my email to Strava in a vain attempt to reclaim those much-needed metres (and you’ll see the retrospectively resolved the issue). 

Questionable distance measurement aside, we had made it to the city centre exactly on schedule. We’d crossed borders and taken in some incredible scenery. We’d also put in a solid couple of days of base-tanning our perma-kit lines for the summer.

We were ready to begin The Stag proper.

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Details:

The Stag | Day 1.

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Date: Thursday 9th April, 2015
Distance: 85.4km | Elevation: 1,247m
Destinations: Alnmouth — Banburgh — Wooler — Morebattle

Start kms: 2,018.6 | Finish kms: 2,104.0km | % complete: 21.0%

There are occasions when, setting out for a ride, you tightly cross your fingers and pray to whichever god might care to listen that the run-up to it is not indicative of the excursion itself. 

With an hour of the morning spent trying (and failing) to load two routes onto Gorrods Garmin, this was one of those sort of run-ups. With 30 minutes left before our train was due to pull out of Kings Cross Station, we eventually decided we were flogging a dead horse. On this occasion, the Garmin would not be our guide. 

With neither of us knowing where we were going beyond the station we’d be arriving into, we quickly hatched a plan. On the ride to the station, Gorrod would veer off to locate an iPhone mount for his phone whist I powered on to the station to print out our tickets. We set out together, darting through the rush hour traffic and snaking between the masses of cars, buses and motorbikes in a manner more reckless than I’d care to admit. 

Tickets in-hand, I ran through Kings Cross. Anyone who has tried walking on a tiled floor in cleats knows this is no mean feat, but I was determined to pick-up some remnant of the Stag breakfast I had intended.

With two bikes, two flat whites and a paper bag full of impulse purchases, we ran for our platform to load our bikes into the front carriage.

We had 3 minutes to spare. 

After months of careful planning, this is not how I had anticipated us beginning the two-day ride that would kick-off Gorrods Stag Weekend. As Best Man, I did not feel like the best man.

Seats located and cycling accessories safely stowed away, we took approximately 10 seconds to breathe, basking in the fact we’d managed to stick to time, before greedily going at our almond croissants and cinnamon doughnuts. This was chased down by a past-its-optimum-drinking-temperature coffee. 

We were heading for Alnmouth, Northumberland and would be crossing the Endland-Scotland border later that afternoon. However, with a 4-hour train journey ahead of us, there was little to do in the meantime except kick-back, watch the south of England transform into the north, consume a questionable array of pre-ride fuel and relax. Awkwardly, I took my level of relaxation a little too far, nonchalantly knocking over my just-opened can of beer and watching its contents drift slowly and precariously closer to the MacBook of my neighbour. Whilst I felt bad for disrupting his in-train entertainment (at points I became as enthralled by the silent rendition of Rambo I’d been watching over his shoulder as he was by his full sensory experience), I have little doubt that watching a Lycra-clad idiot jog down a moving train carriage in cleats in search of loo roll had its own merits. 

Accompanied by the vague stench of beer and sausage rolls, the cycling itself began at around 13.30. Normally, our rides end with a train journey rather than beginning with them, so I thought  we might be a little more lethargic in our riding style.

I was wrong.

With the sun shining brighter than it had all year, we were expressing levels of excitement over the first bib-shorts-and-jersey-only day of 2015 that, for countless reasons, was unacceptable for two guys in their mid-twenties. Throw in the fact that the first part of our route was taking us down to Bamburgh and its coast, meaning a fairly constant downward slope, and we’d covered 40km in little over 90 minutes. 

Stopping only for a photograph of Bamburgh Castle, we were quickly on the move again, back in-landf towards Wooler which, at around 65km seemed like a sensible place to stop. Both of us could probably have pedalled on through to the finish, but it feels wrong to complete a ride of this distance and not have one rest-and-cappucinno stop along the way. Gorrod added a tiramisu to this, which is arguably excessive, but forgivable on account of it being his Stag Do ( I suppose…). 

With the sun warming us on the terrace of thew inspiring and uniquely name Milan Restaurant (it was indeed an Italian), we were sure we were moving closer to the England-Scotland border. However, the fact that everyone was still speaking with the warm, affectionate lilt of Sarah Millican suggested we weren’t there yet.

We did arrive at it soon enough, though, and thankfully it had a level of ceremony to it. This is the first time I’d cycled over a country border in the UK and I had a mild concern that we’d find ourselves missing an understated sign that was characteristic of our nation and not discover we’d made the transition until we reached our destination. Instead, we pedalled up towards a large sign that simply stated: “Scotland welcomes you”.

Behind us, we left an even simpler sign: a plaque screwed to a wall that read “ENGLAND” in block capitals. 

Make of those what you will. 

Our stop for the night was only a few kilometres beyond the official border in a small town called Morebattle. Neither one of us for the indulgences of lad culture, the first night of Gorrods Stag could not have been further from the Hollywood-inspired debauchery of Vegas: a quiet cottage on Teapot Street named Kissingate, located by a stream, complete with free-standing bath and gas stove. The owner could be forgiven for thinking us honeymooners rather than Stags. 

I’m sure our matching embroidered casquettes, Gorrods labelling him ‘Groom’ and mine ‘Best Man’ removed any doubt from the situation.  Following a beer on the balcony in the last of the days sun, a bath and a Chinese Takeaway, we prepared for the following day by mulling over our route and drinking whisky from makeshift whisky glasses (refashioned tea light holders). We also located our all-important breakfast stop — approximately 60km away, allowing us a reasonable warm-up. 

Meanwhile, Gorrod pondered aloud the major concerns of what the day held in store:

“I wonder what roll our haggis will come on tomorrow”.

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Details: 

Bonksville.

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Date: Sunday 5th March, 2015
Distance: 103.2km  | Elevation: 1,426m
Destinations: New Cross – Royal Tunbridge Wells – New Cross

Start kms: 1,925.1km | Finish kms: 2,028.3km | % complete: 20.3%

It can happen to the best of us.

Too many late night after late night. A few too many beers the night before. A restless nights sleep. Eating the wrong thing before jumping on the bike (or simply not eating enough).

Thankfully, it didn’t happen to me.

At least, not this time.

Joining me on an early Sunday morning jaunt to Royal Tunbridge Wells and back, Gorrod had a week of long, stressful, physically-involved days in him thanks to his recent house move. Ever-eager — and almost always running behind time — he wound up feeling the need to cover the 15km from his new house to mine in under half an hour, leaving him slightly out of breath and, as we’d discover, on the back foot before we’d even begun.

In hindsight, the tell-tale signs were there by the time we’d hit 40km. Whereas he would normally always place himself half a wheel ahead of me (a physical embodiment of his superior fitness), today Gorrod was, at best, alongside me.

His head hung heavier, too, looming towards his handlebars.

I quietly rejoiced in the fact that I didn’t have to worry about getting caught in the friendly fire of his snot rockets. I also began to congratulate myself on what was clearly a considerable improvement in my fitness levels.

Any misplaced confidence was immediately shattered when Gorrod pulled into the side of the road and began devouring a CLIF Bar. We were 3km from our rest stop and he is a proud man — as much as I wanted it to be the case, he didn’t just fancy a snack.

Not even a considerable breakfast at The Velo House could reinvigorate those tired legs to regular service. As we rolled past train stations, I watched as he surveyed them with intent, actively weighing up the possibility of dismounting and switching to an infinitely easier mode of transport.

Having already tackled these roads within the last month, involuntarily becoming the stronger rider made them feel somehow easier. My focus was drawn away from the inclines and towards making sure we both made it up and over together, which meant having to take on a level of positivity I rarely afford myself.

Gorrod crossed the 3-figure threshold somewhere on the way back in to Bromley. It was either that, his breakfast kicking-in or the possibility of the ride being over becoming very real that brought him out of the other side.

As I say, rather him than me, but I know that it’s only a matter of time.

All of this said, I do feel it’s only fair I point out that bonking doesn’t mean Gorrod crawls along at a snails pace. He managed to average a speed of 26kph over the course of the ride.

It’s little wonder I struggle to keep up on the good days.

Details:

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Tour de March: Day 2.

Date: Sunday 15th March, 2015
Distance: 162.9km | Elevation: 1,403m
Destinations: Milton — Lavenham — Blo Norton — Thundenhall — Norfolk 

Start kms: 1,197.0km | Finish kms: 1,359.9km  | % complete: 13.6%

It may have been the excessively indulgent dinner of the previous night. It might have been the beige breakfast of colourless sausage, chewy french roll and butter. It may have just been general tiredness. 

Whatever it was, the first 60km of the day were, without a doubt, the most difficult for me. 

As my legs went through their familiar orbits around my chain ring, I stared at the back wheel of Sams bike and wondered why the sandwich that the pub staff had kindly made for us the night before and stowed in an old cracker tub with some ice packs refused to move anywhere close to below my diaphragm.
Having just described the storage methods, though, perhaps I have finally answered my own question. 

Today was the day that 4 became 3, as Hendo would be heading home for some much-needed rest after a fortnight of 18-hour working days that hadn’t relented until the Friday before we were due to leave. The fact that he found the energy and enthusiasm to still be involved, let alone hammer through the routes with ease, is beyond me. 

Before his departure, there were some serious flat and open roads for us to enjoy. Whilst we were headed directly into the wind blowing in from the east coast, we were also remaining dry — something none of us, and Gorrod in particular, expected to happen. You see, all of us get excited in the run-up to a ride like this and each of us expresses his excitement (or, more accurately, over-exictement) in different ways. I’ll take too may photos of my prep and throughout the ride. Sam, it would seem, bulk buys CLIF bars and aims to bring as many as he can with him. Hendo will remain level-headed, but the text messages will come through at a faster pace and in greater volumes than they would on a regular weekday, generally containing more exclamation marks than they would otherwise.

Meanwhile, Gorrod becomes our self-appointed weatherman. Providing daily updates, he not only gives us a current status, but how that has changed since the last time he checked (along with a screenshot of a grey cloud icon spitting our ominous drops of rain). For this ride, it was only getting worse the closer it came and, in some deeply sadistic way, he seemed to like that. I suppose that, in his defence, it did mean that we packed accordingly.

We’d never admit that to him prior to the event, though. It would only encourage him. 

Back on the road, as the chaps stopped to de-layer, I plodded on ahead, turning a sharp bend that took me into a fast-paced descent of a hill. As I began to climb my way out of this mini trough, Gorrod sprinted up alongside me to break the news that this wasn’t the right way — we were supposed to have taken a turn at the top of the hill. 

It’s only when you find yourself climbing an unnecessary hill that you realise you’ve been taking your route guides — Gorrod and his Garmin — for granted and how good a job they do on getting you from point to point. That said, it didn’t stop me cursing him under my breath as I continued to taste the grey, suspicious sausage from earlier that morning. 

As Hendo continued on to get the train back to London, we sat down for a restorative cup of coffee at The Lavenham Greyhound.

And then another. 

It’s amazing what a couple of cappuccinos can do. As we put our helmets back on and our feet back into our pedals, I felt comparatively unstoppable — that is until the effects of drinking somewhere in the region of a pint of warm, frothy milk kicked in.

Not that it mattered. By then, we’d formed a 3-man chain gang and were powering through the headwind, leaving Cambridgeshire well behind us. 

As I was sat between Gorrod and Sam, I felt good and capable of taking on the days 100-mile route. There are many benefits of finding yourself in the middle of a peloton (even if it is only made up of 3 people). There’s the decreased wind resistance, the reduced energy required to maintain a higher speed and the lack of responsibility for directing the group.

However, it also comes with some inherent risks. There’s a chance you could lose concentration for a moment and find yourself brushing wheels with the bike in front before meeting the tarmac quickly after. There’s also the possibility you pay for the mistake of the person in front as they break to hard or swerve too late. 

But there is a risk that is far, far greater. It involves the habit that is prevalent amongst numerous cyclists known as snot rocketing. As disgusting as the name might suggest, it involves the removal of nasal mucus build-up (i.e. bogies) from the nostril through an aggressive exhalation and the strategic placement of an index finger. Whilst I choose not to partake, the same cannot be said to Gorrod.

As still-warm beads of his snot hit me square in the face, I informed him his technique required practice and lacked basic etiquette (although those may not have been the exact words I used). 

Continually wiping at my face, knowing full well it wouldn’t be properly clean until I’d bathed it in scalding hot water, we stopped for some much-needed lunch. Whilst The Dutch Barn sounds like a questionable club somewhere in the middle of Amsterdams red light district, it is in fact a garden centre in the middle of nowhere that has a cafe attached. As well as a purveyor of warm toasties and cake, it also boasts one of the more bizarre selection of clientele I’ve come into contact with recently. 

We watched with morbid fascination as a father and son sat silently at a table. They stared at it until their drinks were placed in front of them, at which point they started staring at those. Their silence was broken by only two things. The first was the sound of the elder of the two stirring his tea so aggressively that the tea spoon bounced loudly from one side of the porcelain cup to the other. The second was a request for the bill. 

It was a bleak thing to observe, but watching Gorrods reaction as the last slice of his desired cake being ordered by someone else helped take the edge of. So did watching him eat his second-rate option. 

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As we ventured further into deepest, darkest Norfolk, where every which way you turned it felt as though you were looking at a Turner painting (one of his moodier-skied ones), I did something I rarely do unless climbing a hill: I slipped out of my chains big ring. I didn’t look back for the rest of the day (or for the rest of the trip, for that matter). 

Our plan was to take one more stop before Norwich, in the superbly named Thundenhall. Upon getting there though, we decided to power on through to the finish — partly because it was nowhere near being the Bond villain-type lair of a town we imagine it to be, but partly because we were all still feeling half-decent. 

Waiting at the end of what is my furthest ride to-date were a cold Adnams beer, an egg custard and an Indian takeaway menu. Same grandparents had really delivered and these spoils lasted little to no time whatsoever (excluding the takeaway menu. Here, I practiced a level of self control and chose not to consume it). 

After what was not just a reviving, but a life-affirming shower and donning what was either Sams mum or dads rather fetching fleece, I was ready to forget everything I’d learnt the previous evening and eat far too much food. Through the enabling of Sam — who not was not only kind enough to drive us all to pick up our dinner, but left some of his on his plate for Gorrod and I to divide between us — I felt the same stitch creeping up on me as I ploughed through what remained in the tub of Daim ice cream. 

The whisky digestif didn’t seem to help, either. 

Still, it was a solid and fantastic day of cycling and, overall, we all seemed in pretty good shape. 

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