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Journal

Filtering by Tag: Gran Fondo

Rapha MCR-LDN: a new threshold.

10,000km.cc

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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. 

Final results.

etails:

LDN-BTN-LDN.

10,000km.cc

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Date: Saturday 11th July, 2015
Distance: 217.7km | Elevation: 2,467m
Start kms: 4,792.9km | Finish kms: 5,010.6km  | % complete: 50.1%

Destinations: New Cross – London Bridge – Ditching Beacon – Brighton – Ashdown Forest – Royal Tunbridge Wells – New Cross

We’d had this ride in our sights for some time, having scheduled it in during the wetter, darker winter months of the year. 

There seemed to be something innately satisfying about heading from London, down to Brighton, and then coming back again all in one day. 

Part of it no doubt stemmed from the fact that it was a loop. It’s always itws own reward to hit the start and finish button on your GPS outside of your front door. 

Part of it arguably came from an inherent (albeit it slightly shameful) smugness of covering a well-trodden, well-publicised and frequently organised ride before lunch and then doing the same again, only in the opposite direction. 

And part of it was definitely because it looked good written in short-hand: LDN-BGN-LDN.

Someone needs to put that on a t-shirt. 

Amongst with the usual subjects – Hendo,Gorrod and Saul – was colleague and new-bike-owner, Dan. Having not ridden more than about 40km and seeing this as a reasonable distance to wear in a fresh saddle and new bike set-up, he met us at London Bridge for a 06.00 depart. 

Yet another sunny day awaited us and with it another day of milestones. 

First, whilst not by much, was that with a total distance of 217km, this saw my longest ride benchmark creep up a little further. 

Second – and more exciting – was that with this incremental gain would come the halfway point of my 10,000km. Somewhere between Mottingham and Eltham, I crossed the invisible 5,000km line.

But that came later. Before all of that that was my first ride from London to Brighton and an introduction to Ditchling Beacon (and all that comes before it). 

A Category 4 climb, Ditching Beacon wasn’t necessarily steep – it was just 90km into the ride and a kilometre and a half long, so it started to take it out of you towards the top. That said, it was a really enjoyable climb for the fact that there were no sudden kicks or surprises lurking round any bends and for the incredible views at the top.

Out of curiosity, I’ve just taken a minute or ten to look back through my previous rides. Whilst my legs would be inclined to disagree, at no point have I taken on ay hill that is categorised beyond a level 4. I’ve gone back into 2014 to see if that held any level-ups – nothing. 

Some of those climbs still haunt me, so I dread to think what a Category 3, let along a Category 2 or 1, would do to me. 

Back on Ditching Beacon, we stopped at the top to take in the views and wait for the group come back together. Dan, well beyond his furthest ride already by this point, was still hammering away despite having a camelbak, a BMX helmet and a lack of cleats to contend with. 

The buttered loaf of Soreen he retrieved from his pack at the top was well-deserved. It was also an excellent choice of riding snack of which I took note for future rides. 

The final 10km into Brighton was a gentle downhill that took us to our first stop. We’d heard about Velo Cafe from numerous sources and were under the impression that it was one of the best cycling cafes in the UK. Whilst that may have been the case at some point in the past, it’s certainly not true now. I’m not sure whether it’s under new management or if they’ve just changed tack, but this was less cycling-hub and more caff with outdoor seating. 

Thankfully, our second stop would be through the tried, tested and universally-liked The Velo House in Royal Tunbridge Wells, where all disappointment was annihilated by not so much a slice, but a slab of white chocolate rocky road. 

The second leg of the day was relatively uneventful, the high points being the fact that we made it to the coast and actually saw the sea (unlike in Kings Lynn in the Tour de March earlier this year) and another run through Ashdown Forest on yet another perma-kit-inducing day. 

The low point was probably watching Gorrod throw himself around unknown corners on a couple of downhill segments at far too high a speed, shouting out “REALLY SHARP ONE” at the top of his lungs. 

We didn’t see the value in explaining that was the reason we were hanging back in the first place.  

As well as providing us with vast quantities of butter and sugar, it was at The Velo House, at 160km, that Dan decided it was best to call it a day. Having just one movement available to him through the pedals (pushing) his legs had begun to feel it, as had his shoulders as he became used to a new sitting position on a brand new frame. With a train station 2 minutes from where we sat eating our enchiladas, the temptation was all too much. 

If that was my first ride out, I would not have hope to have faired anywhere close to that well. 

I had built up the Royal Tunbridge Wells to London stretch in my head as being pretty brutal, filled with two, if not three, fairly challenging hills in there. However, avoiding Brasted and Toys Hill this time round meant the reality of the ride was far better, more enjoyable and – as a result – faster than I could have hoped so far in. We quickly made our way back in to Bromley and then Greenwich. Trying to avoid as much of the traffic as possible, we went up, over and through Greenwich Park rather than straight through Lewisham. 

It meant avoiding people rather than cars, but at this stage it was definitely the lesser of two evils. 

Averaging the final 70km at a pace of around 25kph we all managed to get off the bike feeling if not good, then at least pretty okay. 

Given the fact that Dan, Hendo, Saul and I all managed a run the following day (separately, I hasten to add), we can;t have been completely done in. 

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Details:

Hell of the Ashdown+.

10,000km.cc

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Date: Saturday 27th June, 2015
Distance: 206.5km | Elevation: 2,661m
Start kms: 4,430.6km  | Finish kms: 4,537.1km | % complete: 42.7%

Destinations: New Cross – Knatts Valley – Turners Hill – Linfield – Ashdown Forest – Brasted – Crystal Palace – New Cross

I’m no endurance athlete. 

That’ll come as no surprise to anyone. 

However, my limited experience of doing any form of long-distance exercise is that there comes a point where the psychological endurance becomes as – if not more – important than physical fitness. 

With this in mind, and with the Rapha MCR-LDN ride now on the foreseeable horizon, it was about to take down a psychological milestone. 

200km. 

Hendo and I formed a 2-man peleton for the day to take this on. My longest ride was sat at somewhere in the region of 180km. His was 160km. The route we’d planned for this was 206km. 

Speed was therefore absolutely not the key. Instead, it was simply a case of conquering the new distance and hopefully getting off at the other end without feeling as though we couldn’t possibly do any more. 

The foundation of our route was taken from the still fairly recently launched Strava Local, a great collection of cycling and running routes in and around some of the worlds major cities. However, with a full day at our disposal, we were able to add on an extra 70km or so by heading out a little further South East and taking in Knatts Valley for the third time in four weeks. 

Another habit we’d started a few months ago and were keen to keep up was covering more than 100km before the first rest stop. 

In the past, we’d generally taken our first break at the 50-60km mark, stopping for half an hour to take on some food and rest the legs. That makes sense when you’re calling it a day at 100km, but coming back to the psychological element in play over such distances, getting out of the saddle to rest less than a quarter of the way into a ride makes the whole thing feel a lot longer.

Now fully au fait with eating on the bike, we were able to pedal on through to 115km before dismounting for the first time. I can’t speak for Hendo, but after rolling through several towns that had nothing to offer in the way of eateries, I was incredibly happy to see the beckoning bench of a small deli in Lindfield. 

Over half the distance down and at our furthest point from home, post-lunch saw us making our way back up towards London though another new cycling realm: Ashdown Forest. A long and gentle incline would have made for more of a challenge were it not for the thrill of new surroundings and enjoyable scenery. 

The combination of the high, afternoon sun, the clear skies, the dry scrubland to the left and to the right of me, and the sheep and cows roaming the banks and roads came together to create the impression that we weren’t in East Sussex, but on a far-off Spanish island. 

We closed the first loop of our figure-of-eight route at just after 165km, joining already covered ground in Brasted. With minutes to spare, we were able to get our order in at Tarte, a cafe we’d ear-marked for the journey back. Operating on the principle that breakfast food is the best food, I chose granola with yoghurt and lemon curd to push me through the final 50km. 

And my god, I needed it. 

As I’ve mentioned before, our rest stops are always in fairly well-populated towns or villages. Towns and villages tend to be located close to water. These are, in turn, generally in a basin or valley. Consequently, more often than not, the first thing we’re faced with is a hill. 

In this case, that hill was not only present, but almost named correctly: Brasted Hill. 

More Bastard than Brasted, I was immediately calling on my granola to fuel me up as the gradient became steeper and steeper and I churned through gears until I had none left. Snaking from one side of the road to another and doing my best to stop my heart beating out of my chest and up to the top of the hill before me, I felt sorry for the car crawling up the hill behind me.

But not enough to even consider the possibility of stopping to let it past. That would have required energy I had no ability to draw upon at that point. 

Looking to learn as much as we could from ‘the longest ride to-date’, the greatest lesson came in the final stretch of the day: the need to communicate constantly. If there’s a car down, a pothole ahead, glass on the road, an obstacle in the road, it needs to be vocalised to everyone as audibly and obviously as possible. 

The first time this became apparent was on the final (relatively small) climb of the day, which took us up to Crystal Palace. Tired, sun-beaten and a little jaded, concentration was beginning to lapse. As Hendo and I approached a red light, he slipped from his pedal  and swerved into the back of a BMW. I heard the thud and crunch of something breaking and quickly turned around expecting to see him lying on the floor. 

What had actually happened was that he’d managed to accidentally force his handlebar through the brake light of the car, leaving it smashed. The driver was incredibly patient and understanding about the incident as the two swapped details to settle reimbursement. 

The next incident was a far closer call on the descent into East Dulwich. As we coasted past Dulwich Park, I swerved to my left to avoid a traffic barricade that sat across the road. 

Hendo saw me swerve. 

He then wondered why it was I had swerved. 

As he pondered this for almost too long, he made the final decision to follow suit, moments – metres – from clothes-lining himself from his saddle and likely a few broken ribs. 

Needless to say our final few kilometres – with the promise of a cold can of Irn-Bru and an even colder tub of Ben & Jerry’s awaiting – were filled with exaggerated hand signals and loud calls to guarantee we made it home to our indulgences. 

It was better to point out the obvious than for someone to fall victim to it. 

Lessons learnt, milestones surmounted and legs still capable of moving, the only major issue beyond weariness and its impact on reaction times was a sharp, burning sensation in the balls of our feet. 

The constant – and at times heavy – pressure being put through this specific point over and over again made itself known in a very physical way for the final 50-60km. 

No doubt Google will hold many helpful (and yet more unhelpful) solutions. 

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Details:

Shropshire Highlands Cycling Challenge 2015.

10,000km.cc

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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:

Discovering Knatts Valley.

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Date: Saturday 6th June, 2015.
Distance: 115.2km | Elevation: 1,214m
Destinations: New Cross — Shoreham — Knatts Valley — Bromley — New Cross

Start kms: 3,439.1 | Finish kms: 3,554.3 | % complete: 35.5%

The internet — and Instagram in particular — is filled with road porn. 

Especially when you follow the right people (I’m looking at you, Rapha). 

Vistas. Rolling hills. Mountain ranges. Long, seemingly never-ending descents filled with smooth bends and sharp chicanes. It’s difficult to stay off the bike and have a slower-paced day when a quick thumb through your newsfeed gives you an enormous case of cycling FOMO

In many cases, it’s pretty easy to appease yourself: 

“That run’s in the middle of The Dolomites." 

“That climb’s only accessible as part of an expensive trip to the French Alps." 

“I won’t find views like that without sacrificing several precious hours of my weekend on a train." 

They’re not forever off the cards, but they’re not going to be ticked off the list in the immediate future. 

However, there was one hallowed piece of road that I’d seen often and had no reason to have not visited. Ride route after ride route recommended it. Photos emitted their FOMO-magnetism, drawing me towards it. 

And yet, having lived in South East London for 2 years and had it practically on my doorstep, I had never been. 

On a morning that I’d decided to take down the Strava Gran Fondo for the month, Hendo decided he was going to introduce me to it. 

It was a last-minute decision in the middle of a Kent loop and it was utterly worth it. A longish, gradual descent brought us into the valley where we are able to cruise between two hedgerows, surrounded by wildflowers and what may well have been rapeseed.

At its lowest, flattest point, it was remarkably easy to see why and how Kent has earned the moniker of ‘the garden of England’. It was almost enough to take the sting out of the hill that awaits on the other side. 

Almost. 

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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:

Mitie London Revolution | Day 1.

10,000km.cc

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Date: Saturday 16th May, 2015
Distance: 189.0km | Elevation: 1,942m
Destinations: New Cross – Lee Valley – Edenbridge
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Start kms: 2,898.8km | Finish kms: 3,087.8km | % complete: 30.9%

I like an organised ride. 

There are downsides, the biggest one being that you have to go somewhat out of your way to do them. Sometimes it’s an early morning train. Others, a car journey.

In this case, it was a 25km ride to the start line. 

However, the loss of the convenience of starting and finishing a ride outside your front door are more than counteracted by what an organised ride has to offer. 

Route planning is non-existent. Stem-staring is no longer necessary as you replace the reliance on an iPhone or Garmin with following the peloton or, better yet, the well-placed and frequent road signs. Snacks are packed on an emergency-only basis, with fuel stations fulfilling all cake and coffee doping needs.

In short, the majority of thought is removed, leaving the joy of the ride and an unexplored route to be enjoyed.

The initial 25km I mention was to take me out to Lee Valley for registration. On my way out, I picked up my ride partner for the weekend, Saul. Together we’d be taking on the Mitie London Revolution, a two-day sportive that would take us around the edges of London.

However, to get to the outskirts and suburbs of Greater London, we first had to work our way through its centre. Following a route very similar to the one that had got me to the start line, hundreds of riders moved their way through East London and over Tower Bridge. It was as slow-going as you’d expect given the mid-morning congestion and the number of traffic lights, but any sense of frustration was subdued by the meditative sounds of the peloton: the whirring noise of the freewheel, the click-click of tens of riders unclipping in unison, as they paused at yet another red light.

The momentum began to build as we moved south from Crystal Palace and the group began to thin as everyone found themselves enough road to spread out.

Sadly, we were reminded of the dangers of riding unfamiliar routes very early on. As we approached the top of a steep descent, we became part of a bottle neck at least one hundred riders deep. From what we were able to make out, a rider had taken on the narrow, slightly bumpy, tree-lined (and therefore dimly lit) hill too fast and not been able to manoeuvre through a blind bend. Whether or not an oncoming car was involved, I don’t know, but the road was certainly open to two-way traffic.

When we were given the all-clear to walk our bikes down the hill, the presence of an air ambulance in a nearby field sent a shiver down my spine and offered a tangible warning that is better to finish slow and safe than to not finish at all.

Lightening the mood — and providing some light relief for our legs — were two rest stops along the way. The first was in Edenbridge, around 100km in. In terms of fuel, we were not left wanting. With a smorgasbord of chocolate bars, flapjacks, fruit, energy gels, energy drinks, biscuits, sweets, biscuits and cakes on offer, the danger wasn’t that we’d wind-up bonking somewhere between the start and the finish, but that we’d get overexcited and end up over-indluging. This became an even greater risk at the feed station, as sandwiches and a pretty decent cup of coffee (provided by Claud the Butler) were added to the equation.

Exercising serious levels of self-restraint in both circumstances, I took a spot on the grass and, basking in the afternoon sun, made my way through my mini haul.

The lethargy had perhaps started to take hold slightly as we left the second feed station.

Within the first 10km, Saul let himself drift a little too far into my slipstream and was quickly thrown out of it and from his bike. His front wheel had skimmed against my back one and, unable to rectify the imbalance, he slid along the road at a not inconsiderable speed.

Back on his feet, he’d picked up some nasty road rash, but everything was still bending and all of the cyclists riding behind him had managed to swerve around him. Thankfully there’d been no oncoming traffic, as he’d made his way onto the opposite side of the road.

The bike was looking good, too, so he was able to brush himself off remarkably quickly, getting back into the saddle and powering on within a couple of minutes of hitting the deck.

The final 50km towards Ascot put forth some of the best riding of the day. The sun had been shining all day, the roads were smooth and wide and the hills were negative rather positive, meaning the kilometres drifted away beneath our wheels.

Arriving at our overnight rest stop — the racecourse itself — I felt tired, but capable of going further. It was a good sign, as this was my longest ride to-date and, knowing what lies ahead of me in September, these kinds of distances need to feel both familiar and achievable.

Awaiting us were already-pitched tents, hot showers, massages and stretching sessions, plus a seemingly endless supply of buffet food.

There was also beer.

We drank beer.

Two main courses, two desserts and two beers was all it took to make our eyes feel heavy. Sun down meant heads down and we were into our sleeping bags before 22.00 ready for an early start the following day.

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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:

Tour de March: Day 3.

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Date: Monday 16th March, 2015
Distance: 136.6km | Elevation: 979m
Destinations: Norfolk — Holt — Kings Lynn

Start kms: 1,359.9km | Finish kms: 1,496.5km  | % complete: 15.0% 

One of us — and I don’t know who — must have pissed off Gorrod the night before, as he seemed hell-bent on giving one or both of us at best a puncture and at worst some form of frame damage. 

The beginnings of the route for our final day took us down towards a river and onto some questionable terrain. At first it was fun taking on the dips and mounds, with the tarmac becoming compressed dirt. It made for some decent photos, too.

But when the compressed dirt became loose gravel and boggy grassland for circa 5km, my phone was firmly put away and both hands were back on the handlebars to maintain some level of control whilst we all waited for something to go wrong for someone. 

Unbelievably, it didn’t and we managed to make it back onto the streets of Norwich, a little muddier than we’d of liked and having taken in some of the local highlights that included the sewage treatment plant — a treat not only for the eyes, but for the nose as well. 

Cyclocross excursion aside, we were on for a day of motoring. We had one rest stop planned mid-morning and would be straight back into i, heading for the invisible finish line we’d created for ourselves at Kings Lynn station. 

Sam had been spending a lof of time down his TT bars for the previous two days and I was impressed to see him back in them today. With no experience riding on them, I can’t imagine it being the most comfortable of riding positions — especially for upward of 400km — but he was making it look like light work. 

As the day wore on, I actually found myself longing for a set of my own TT bars. My backside had become very familiar with my saddle over the past 3 days and the 2 of them had stopped getting along somewhere on the approach to Norfolk. In a show of solidarity, my back, shoulders and arms had all chosen to do the same to the point where there was no new position for me to move to that wasn’t either as uncomfortable or worse than the previous. 

Upright on the handlebar straight: done. Down in the drops: over. Hands on the hoods: long gone. There was a short period where sitting up straight, hands off the handlebars and leaning myself as far back as I possibly could provided a bit of respite, but that too eventually became as good or bad as the rest of them.

Gorrod had failed to learn anything from yesterday’s snot rocket incident (or maybe he had and really did have it in for Sam and I today) as he continued to fire them out intermittently as we approached Holt. 

Thankfully, one of us had, and I chose to ride outside of his direct line. This was made infinitely easier by the fact that we’d finally planted ourselves on the side of the easterly wind as we headed westward. If there was any form of breeze blowing, it certainly wasn’t against us.

It was that and the previous nights curry that propelled us into what Sam informed us is known locally as ‘Chelsea on Sea’ and the best cafe stop of the tour: Black Apollo.

Having consumed gallons of milk since setting out on Saturday morning, I couldn’t face another cappuccino in a mug the size of a bucket and had the luxury of having a black Costa Rican filter to accompany my muffin. Delightful and precisely what I needed. 

Only sticking around for a quarter of an hour, we were off again and making a b-line for the finish. Sam was back in his drops as we rounded a bend to be confronted by a very large tractor. He was up and onto his breaks quickly and there was never any real threat, but I’m not sure I’d have had the quick-wittedness this late on in the trip to have avoided a front-on collision with its shiny grill.

Major incident avoided, we had our first and only minor incident of the trip. 

With our focus on the finish (and no doubt compounded by a little fatigue), it’s probably fair to say our camaraderie had slipped slightly. Conversation was certainly less free-flowing than it had been, as we all pedalled away furiously, fading in and out of our own worlds. 

It therefore wasn’t until a car pulled-up alongside Gorrod and told us our friend was “experiencing a bit of trouble back there” that we noticed we’d dropped Sam. A quick u-turn was made as we hurried back in the direction we’d just come. A few hundred metres away, we found him down on one knee with his bike on its back whilst he removed the back wheel.  

40km from a clean sheet and we were witnessing our first puncture.

With the speed and precision of a Formula 1 engineer, the wheel was off, the tube was out, replaced and pumped up and we were as good as new (perhaps lacking a few PSI thanks to the inefficiency of a roadside pump).

As we traced the perimeter of Samdringham, we were joined by the sun, which didn’t leave us for the rest of the ride. We all craned our necks, expectantly surveyed our surroundings for a slither of sea, but — surprisingly — didn’t end up with so much as a glimpse.

That was more than made up for by reaching Kings Lynn station and discovering it had Morrisons alongside it. 

The fact we found majesty in a purpose-built, industrial-sized supermarket, viewing it as an oasis in a tarmacced desert full of parked cars, probably says more than enough about where we were at both mentally and physically.

However, watching Gorrod pull his post-ride meal from its carrier bag as the train departed for London, I became convinced that some of us were a little more out of sorts than others. 

I feel I’d chosen well: a sandwich, an apple, a bag of cookies, a flapjack. All easy, unfussy and, at the time, unbelievably delicious. Meanwhile, in lieu of a knife, Gorrod tore apart a role with his hands, before using the same ‘utensil’ to remove the meat from a still-warm rotisserie chicken leg. This was piled into said roll and topped with the best part of an entire bag of reduced-price rocket.

Who buys a deconstructed sandwich? 

Some how, I feel as though that sandwich somehow epitomises the Tour de March. Haphazard, completely off kilter, not entirely thought through, somewhat disturbing to watch, but ultimately very, very enjoyable.

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. 

Details:

10,000km.cc

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Tour de March: Day 1. 

Date: Saturday 14th March, 2015
Distance: 130.7km | Elevation: 1,297m
Destinations: New Cross – Angel – Epping – Sawbridgeworth – Cambridge – Buntingford – Milton

Start kms: 1,066.3km | Finish kms: 1,197.0km | % complete: 12%

It’s amazing what a few friends can put together when they put your minds to it.

Late last year, we put aside one day of holiday each to string out the weekend and made some vague gestures towards a map of the UK that were suggestive of a potentially coherent mini-Tour. 

As time marched on, vague trajectories became concrete routes, hotel possibilities became deposits that had left our bank accounts and friends’ parents houses had been requested and confirmed. 

4 of us rolled out on the Saturday — Hendo and I from south-east London by way of Angel to pick up Gorrod and Sam. As is tradition with group rides such as these, Hendo and I ensured we were adequately late in reaching Gorrod, Hendo helping to ensure this was the case by deciding 30 minutes before leaving his house that he’d switch his wheels out to the new pair of Zipps he’d just purchased. 

20 minutes late, we unashamedly hurried Gorrod and Sam along before heading north for Epping Forrest. 

We’d covered about 30km before the traffic seemed to subside as aggressively and quickly as it had been passing us. Along with the traffic and high-rise buildings, we also left behind that strange, ominous warmth that London seems to generate through some combination of its congested roads, densely packed streets of houses, flats and offices and its amalgamation of frenetically busy inhabitants and visitors. The drop in temperature was tangible and my optimistic decision to don fingerless gloves for the first time this year was at once deemed ill-informed by the weather. 

I quickly switched out. 

There was a definite easterly wind that was bringing with it a chill that we’d yet to shake off by the time we found ourselves on the other side of Epping Forrest, in Sawbridgeworth. We hoped a cup of warm coffee and the wait for it inside a heated building might help take the edge off. 

Only 3 out of 4 of us took The Shed up on this offer once we’d pulled in and unclipped. Sam, still firmly in a London state of mind, was adamant on guarding our bikes outside. In his defence, he was (and no doubt still is) still reeling from the recent theft of his Cube from outside his work, so it as entirely understandable. 

Empathetic friends that we are, we left Sam outside in the cold watching over all of our bikes and basked in the momentary warmth of the cafe. Our comeuppance was served piping hot via our drink choices and Gorrod, Hendo and I, in that order, all burnt out mouths (after each of us warning the other just how hot the drinks were). 

After the tree-lined, picturesque roads and fluid bends of Epping, the ride didn’t seem to find its stride for me again until after lunch, which was enthusiastically consumed at The March Hare Tea Room in Buntingford. As we gathered inside to pay, Sam headed into the loo. 

Knowing we had a substantial amount of time to play with as Sam fought with the logistical nightmare of using the toilet whilst wearing bib shorts, we couldn’t resist the temptation of hiding his bike. 

Because it’s always funny to aggressively poke at a fresh wound. 

He found the whole thing as hilarious as a recent victim of theft might be expected it to. We laughed, too.   

As we neared Cambridge proper, first came the surrounding countryside of Cambridgeshire. What would be considered hills on this ride would, on any other day, be more accurately described as humps and so didn’t put too much pressure on any of our legs. Instead, we were able to enjoy the undulating landscape of farmed fields, the stark contrast of the rich green of the hedgerows, the dark brown soil, the sand-coloured wheat fields and what had turned into a bright blue sky. 

These vistas (yes, I’m being ever-so-slightly hyperbolic) were only broken by the occasional placement of a farmhouse or, even less occasionally, a windmill. 

The historical city of Cambridge was brushed aside as we made our way through its outskirts to arrive just north of it, at The Jolly Brewers in Milton: a pub-slash-B&B and our bed for the night. 

I use these rides as an excuse to see what I can get away with packing, or, more accurately, not packing). 

Of course, there are essentials that cannot be left home without (I’ve learnt this the hard way): 3 inner tubes, 2 tyre levers, a bike tool, a bike pump, ride snacks and a waterproof shell tend to do the job. 

There are also things that I need to bring from an off-the-bike perspective: glasses, contact solution, a miniature bottle of whisky. 

But there are some things I consider a luxury not worth buying a bigger saddle bag to accommodate. Namely, a change of clothes for the evening, any spare cycling jerseys or fresh underwear. Make of that what you will, but the requirements for short cycling excursions dictate that the inherent need for fresh pants will be minimal. 

It being before 6 o’clock in the evening when we arrived, then, meant there was only one thing to do. 

Still very much clad in our lycra (and 2 of us in our matching kit), we waddled over from our rooms to the pub in our cleats, planted ourselves in a room full of strangers enjoying a few beers whilst watching the 6 Nations and did the same. 

We then created the same strange scene in the pubs restaurant. 

As I scraped the bowl that, moments earlier, contained an entire sticky toffee pudding and ice cream whilst a large, bald man on a nearby table looked suspiciously at our shoes, I realised I probably should have eaten more on the bike throughout the day. I’d already devastated a pile of ham faggots, a slab of cheesy garlic bread, a plate of pie and chips and anything else that anyone else had managed to leave on their plates (how they found themselves full, I do not know). 

Rolling in my smaller-than-single bed from my right side onto my left to reduce the discomfort of a food-induced stitch, I vowed to avoid doing the same again tomorrow.

Details:

10,000km.cc

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Burning Holiday: Day 2.

Date: Thursday 5th March, 2015
Distance: 150.0 km | Elevation: 1,803m
Destinations: Virginia Water – Lingfield – Royal Tunbridge Wells – New Cross 

Start kms: 772.1km | Finish kms: 992.1km | % complete: 9.2% 

The second day saw an earlier start. 

On rides like this, I tend to like taking down a few kilometres before I stop for a proper meal. So, with a packet of nuts in my jersey pocket (just in case) I was on my way towards Royal Tunbridge Wells on another glorious day. 

It was a fairly flat, and therefore pleasant, start to the day. With a little more distance to cover than the previous day, I held back a little and stayed in a relatively light gear to warm the legs back up whilst ticking off the towns and villages I’d never heard of and would likely never pass through again: Horne, Newchapel, Lingfield, Dormansland. 

I was fairly quickly off the main roads and into back roads and green lanes. This made for a great and relaxing ride, not having to worry about hugging the side of the road to accommodate overtaking cars, being able to sit up in the saddle and take my hands off the handlebars for brief periods knowing I wouldn’t have to immediately and unexpectedly reach for my breaks. 

What it also meant, though, was that I was 60km in and still hadn’t eaten as I’d not passed anywhere that looked remotely open. I was getting hungry (something I don’t cope well with off the bike, let alone on it) and there was no feasible rest stop/purveyor of sustenance in sight. 

The nuts were broken into and very quickly decimated. 

Thankfully, not long after said decimation I spied what looked like an open cafe. Lou Lou Jane of Lingfield sorted me out with a restorative ham sandwich and hot cross bun. That did the job. 

One of my main concerns about this 2-day ride was doing this distance solo. I’d been out on rides on my own before, but they tended to be around 50km or 60km, which only equates to a few hours in the saddle. Even the ride from London to Virginia Water was only just over 4 and a half hours of moving time. Today, though, was circa 150km to get back home, so a solid 6 or so hours on the bike. Accounting for rest stops and I was looking at a full day. Whilst I don’t mind my own company, having nobody to bounce off or drive you forward at those more difficult times was a worry.

But with the weather on my side, I free-wheeled into Royal Turnbridge Wells feeling great and pulled up for a spot of launch at what was my favourite stop of the weekend. 

The Vélo House is a large, open space of a cafe and a visual ode I to the sport of cycling. The walls are adorned with signed jerseys and prints, the TV was showing historic races and the shelves were stocked with an exceptionally covetable range of helmets, kit and bikes. It was also pretty popular with mums and buggies, which was the first sign that, despite the focused theme of The Vélo House, it had mass appeal. 

One of the key reasons for that may well have been their macaroni cheese with sausage. That was phenomenal. 

Whilst I’d planned and checked my routes for both days, I’d only done so to ensure I was sticking to tarmac roads (whilst I don’t mind attending to a puncture, I don’t actively seek them out either). I hadn’t laboriously tracked elevation and route stats and, upon leaving Royal Tunbridge Wells, I was glad I hadn’t. It may have been my legs tiring, but it felt like all 1,800m on climbing for the day had been back-loaded onto the final 60km home — ignorance had certainly been bliss up to this point. 

Each and every time I took another hill down, another would rear its sheer, steep and ugly head. This happened what felt to be continuously all the way to Orpington. I’d find myself over the handlebars and allowing my wheels to spin unaided as I descended a hill, but was almost entirely unable to enjoy it. 

Instead, I gritted my teeth and winced expectantly at what was round the next bend. Sure enough, there it would be; another incline to suck the momentum from below my tyres, bring me from my saddle and force me to snake my way towards its top as I desperately attempted to take any level of gradient out of the climb. I’m not sure how many time this happened, but I do know there were 7 categorised climbs across the course of the day. 

I’m not sure how many times this has ever been said, but with my lunch well and truly evaporated and my body running on vapours, I was irrationally happy to find myself in Croydon.

It meant London. 

It meant flat. 

It meant less than 20km from home. 

I’d been hoping to break the 100 mile (160km) barrier, but as I drew closer to my road, I didn’t have it in me to push on past my house to finish off the extra 10km lap. I instead chose to settle for the 150km. 

Still, that was two Strava Challenges complete in as many days. It also saw me more than meet the weekly average (207km) I need to be hitting to stay on-track for 10,000km this year. 

And I now know where to take myself if I want to do a bit more hill training…

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