Scaling Up

I’ve written about mapping out rides before but plotting a route for the Transcontinental is bigger than any previous way finding I’ve needed to do by roughly a factor of ten. Both in terms of distance and the number of countries involved. I’ve been drawing a line across Europe. Superimposing a single simple line across many complicated interconnecting lines. Many lines have been drawn and redrawn across the continent throughout human history. Many kinds of lines have been marked across the landscape, some connecting, others separating, some natural, others man made. Many are weighed down by history, even though gone still visible in various ways. The line Jo and I will ride is invisible to all but us and we will traverse lightly, a tracing that will leave no trace other than in our memories. This isn’t strictly true as there’ll be dotwatchers following us and GPS recordings, but that is all just a digital simulacra that will be forgotten in the noise of the internet. This line will be our life for two weeks – we’ll follow it, eat on it, sleep on it, maybe change our minds about it, deviate from it, but we’ll always be close to it.

Two weeks of lunch hours, evenings, and weekends of looking and thinking. No prior knowledge, except for I rode up the Muur a couple of years ago. There’s no memory map to call upon this time. Information is gleaned from where ever it can be found; Paper maps, online routing tools, Streetview, Google Maps, satellite images, eavesdropping on Twitter conversations, searching for trans-European cyclepaths, checking (and double checking) the race manual. Checking the Foreign Office website for border controls and travel guidance. I think to myself I’m glad we’re doing this pre-Brexit – this could be a whole heap of hassle in a couple of years, but let’s not scratch the surface of that subject just yet (I’m sure there will be something else to write about being European after I’ve ridden across the continent). Lots of conversations about the pretty way versus the easier way have been had. We’re going the pretty way whenever possible. I don’t really see why you wouldn’t. This does mean I’ve routed us over the highest pass in the Eastern Alps, but oh heck it looks stunning. Anyway 20km of uphill will be followed by 20km of downhill…fast downhill. Sixty switchbacks I read. Then there’s the option of the easy valley road or climbing in and out of the Dolomites. Pretty vs. Easy, again.

All of Europe has been unfolded and laid out across the floor to see how places link up and which of the multitude of ways between them are both the most feasible. Trying to make sense of something that isn’t entirely sensible. Figuring out road numbering systems (is that a motorway?) and factoring in border and river crossings, sometimes one and the same – the Rhine between France and Germany, the Danube between Romania and Bulgaria. Using paper maps for an overview, to see the lay of the land. Looking for ways across, between or around mountain ranges, finding the flat(ter) way, if there is one and as long as it doesn’t add too much distance. Tapping these thoughts into routing apps and tweaking almost ad infinitum. Avoiding one hill just to find a mountain. Forgetting to take scale into account when checking profiles – when the big pointy bit is significantly higher than 2000 metres then the chances are those other smaller pointy bits are still going to be over 2000 metres. Everything is scaling up.

Additionally there is the need to know we can find food and water at regular intervals along the way and the task has been almost as time consuming as the ride will be. Deliberately routing us through the middle of towns to ensure we can find the things we need along the way. This isn’t my usual practice, I usually look for the smallest little roads that pass through nowhere, but experience tells me food and water can be hard to find following this pattern. I’ve been marking down Lidls and Tescos, McDonalds and Shell petrol stations. We want to soak in some of the culture and customs we ride through, take ourselves out of our comfort zones, live in the moment, experience the situation, that’s all part of the point of riding a bike, to be a part of what surrounds you, not separated and simply viewing. Yes these known quantities are easy, the recognisable amongst the unfamiliar, and as much as I don’t like the thought that these chains have leached across the world we’ll want, or more importantly need the convenience and ease of familiarity every now and again when exhausted and hungry. They are the nearest to a comfort zone we’re likely to get. My experience of Streetview is that the photos may be old and that little shop may no longer be there, but the big chains will be. As much as I want to support local economies sometimes I’m just going to want a big cup of coke whilst I upload to Instagram on the free wifi. Also big chains often means clean toilets.

I don’t want to Streetview the entire route (not that there’s enough time for that) but there’s a trade off, a compromise between having some understanding of where we’re going and what’s in store for us, against the desire to leave things to be found and surprise us. We don’t want to find that that road turns into a dirt track through a forest on a Bulgarian mountain, that way lies difficulties and wolves, but it’s nice to know that there’s a little bar on that corner so we can get a coffee and fill up our water bottles. Also seeing the changes between regions and countries, and how things look more and more unfamiliar the further east and south we travel, only add to the anticipation. Finding place names lodged in my consciousness for reasons I can’t quite pin down – Graz, Bratislava, Sofia – but probably from sixties spy films. Perhaps from geography lessons back in school, but some places aren’t in the same countries as they were when I was a kid. Even in my lifetime the borders of Europe have been re-drawn. Other place names mean nothing now but in a few weeks will have taken on all kinds of significance. I’ve found places to go back to and explore at leisure.

However no matter how much looking at maps and photos I do riding 4000km in two weeks will be an entirely different experience. A line, some photos, a list of countries

Belgium
France
Germany
Austria
Italy
Austria (again)
Slovakia
Hungary
Romania
Bulgaria
Macedonia
Greece

and place names. It’s a flat one-dimensional world I’ve been looking at and it certainly won’t be that when we’re there. There again that corner of Hungary we’ll skedaddle across looks a bit flat.

Mayhem Weekender

Sometime after midnight on Monday morning in a 24 hour petrol station on the edge of Brighton

Cashier: “Have you done the bike ride today?” [Sunday was the annual London to Brighton charity ride]

Me: “No, I’ve done a different bike ride. A little bit further.”

Cashier: “Wow, further! Where have you ridden from then?”

Me: “From near Gloucester”

Cashier: “Gloucester!? Flipping heck!”

What I didn’t add was that I’d actually ridden there on Friday evening, done a lap of a mountain bike race that morning, before riding home from mid-afternoon until now. There was already a look of incredulity on the woman’s face and adding this additional information would have only led to the inevitable “Why?” question and I was frankly far too exhausted to think of an answer. I took my change, picked up my ready meal for two, stuffed it in my musette, and walked out of the garage, hopped back on the bike and rode into the light pollution for the final couple of miles home.

The weekend just gone was the last ever Mountain Mayhem 24 hour mountain bike race. I came to this event late, only attending my first one four years ago. That year I was there to help out mates and take some photos. That in turn prompted me to buy a mountain bike and return in 2015 and 2016 and do the solo race (in for a penny, in for a pound). This year being the last ever one I considered soloing again but sensibly decided it was a bit close to the start of the Transcontinental to recover in time properly. A plan to ride from Brighton to Gatcombe Park and then back again was hatched instead. This would mean I could hang out with mates and watch the last race with the added benefit of getting a couple of 200km night(ish) rides in as Transcon training. What with camping at the race too it gave me an opportunity to test out my sleeping stuff for the Transcon and see how most efficient to pack it on the bike. In the back of my mind I knew that if there was a spare bike kicking about I’d try and get a cheeky lap in too.

Friday

I left Brighton just before 3 o’clock on Friday afternoon (due to having run out of annual leave allowance I needed to fit the riding in around work. A couple of long days in the preceding week meant I could bunk off early) and headed along the coast for a bit before turning northwest. Annoyingly there was a stiff breeze coming from precisely the direction I didn’t need it to be coming from, but the sun was shining and the forecast was good for the whole weekend.

It says a lot about the last few months that I now consider the roads as far as Petersfield as ‘home roads’. Distances have not only become greater but there have been a lot of rides out this way, to Bespoked a couple of times, to Wales on an audax, and various long rides that have headed further into West Sussex that I ever did before (I usually head into East Sussex as I know the roads better). It’s only once past the climb over the Ashford Hangers or “Little Switzerland” as it is known locally, and there is something alpine-esque about the climb, in character rather than height, that the roads start to feel foreign and the excitement and anticipation of the long ride kicks in. I have ridden across parts of Hampshire and Wiltshire many times in the last two years but my route this weekend took in new roads to me. I was in roughly the same areas as previous rides, familiar names on signposts triggered memories. It was early afternoon by the time I got past Petersfield and Hampshire looked about as pastoral and bucolic as it’s possible to be. Narrow lanes carried me through endless fields of wheat and barley rolling across low downland until I popped out on a familiar road through the Bourne Valley towards Wiltshire. I crossed the border as the sun was setting and headed for Marlborough. Somewhere along the way a rustling sound from a field to my left startled me and I turned to see a group of deer bouncing through the golden field, not only a sight to behold but the sound of them swooshing through the tall crop was beautiful. Then a barn owl swept across my path. Idyllic.

The last of the light was fading from the sky as I reached Marlborough around 10 o’clock and by the time I dropped off the Marlborough Downs stars could be seen in the dark sky. There was an orange glow on the horizon to the northeast which I guessed was Swindon. From previous years of driving to Mayhem I knew this is where we turned off the M4 so it couldn’t be too much further. The Garmin distance told me similar, somewhere around 50km to go.

The next section passed close to Royal Wootton Bassett, Malmesbury and Tetbury but I’m not sure what the landscape was like as it was properly dark by now and I was tired and concentrating on pedalling, snacking and drinking. At 1 o’clock in the morning I was sat on a bench outside the pub in Avening eating the last of the emergency peanuts before the last couple of kilometres up the hill to the Mayhem site.

A few minutes later, and after getting lost on the campsite, I pulled into our camp where Rory and Shaggy gave me a hug and a beer, and Jo handed me a plate of pasta. Part one completed, 215km in ten and half hours.

Saturday

Much sitting about in the shade trying not to melt in the sunshine. Beer. Food. More beer. Heckling mates racing. Due to some motorway closures one of Jo’s team of ten, My Knees Hurt (usually a team of four and raced all 20 years of Mayhem, singlespeed in the old days hence the team name, this year all previous riders and helpers have combined to make a team of ten) can’t make it to Mayhem so they are a rider down. Frazer from the Pivot Boompods team very generously offers me his Pivot Les to do a lap standing in for ‘Scottish Phil’. Some number crunching is done and it is decided that I will go out for the dawn lap on Sunday morning. I then drink some more beer as I have hours to go before I have to ride.

Sunday Morning

I awoke to Jo saying “Oi, you’re supposed to be awake. You’re out soon”. I checked the time, it’s 04:18 and two minutes before my alarm is due to go off. Bleary eyed I gave Jo the spare number board to go on the bike whilst I dragged my kit on. Half a flapjack and a spin around the campsite to make sure the bike is set up OK and I set off to the arena to take over from Rory when he gets in from his lap. Yes, I know it would have made sense to check the bike the day before but it was being saved as second bike for Rich who was racing solo so I didn’t want to mess around with the seat height until I was absolutely sure he wouldn’t need to use the bike.

Rory beeped over the timing mat and handed over to me. I hopped on the bike and headed out of the main arena into the field before the woods. First corner and the rear end squirmed all over the place. Bloody hell, I’d not ridden a MTB since last November and I had completely forgotten about how low pressure you can run a tubeless tyre. I minced around the first few corners, almost slid out over a root into a tree, until I got used to it and then I was off. It’s a lot more fun knowing you only have to put one lap in rather than ride non-stop for 24 hours. For the first time I was riding up behind people and saying “on yer left” or “on yer right” and slaloming between slower riders. Most of the course was ingrained in my mind from two years of solo racing and the trails are so dry it was easy to get some flow going. Despite not having ridden a mountain bike for months it felt like the best I’ve ever ridden.  After a few corners I can see the sun squeezing between the trunks and branches, sun rise! A magical time of day to ride a bike. I love riding at dawn but my previous experience of dawn at Mayhem is utter exhaustion and a slow (rapid) unravelling of my sense of humour or resolve. I’m usually having a lie down and sulk not long after the dawn lap. This was riding at dawn without all the tiredness and mental fragility of soloing and it was ace. I even rode the entire course, no parts were walked, a mix of having a really lightweight bike to ride and all the Transcon training, plus the fact I only had one lap to do so didn’t need to worry about conserving energy (I may have eased off on a couple of fire roads knowing that I had to ride home later in the day). It was the most fun lap I’d ever done at Mayhem. Through the campsite section I could see Phil was still at camp and not at the handover waiting for me. “Phil, I’m back…” I shouted as I whizzed past. Through the last bit of singletrack into the arena and I span along until I saw Phil riding round to take over. I rode over the timing mat just as he arrived. I passed the baton over and went looking for a bacon sarnie. Then I dozed some more.

The rest of Sunday

All packed up and goodbyes said I pedal out of the campsite just after 2 o’clock for the 200 or so kilometres home. It was ridiculously hot and I had toyed with the idea of just getting a lift home, but this was the last big Transcon training ride, and getting a lift won’t be an option on the Transcon. I had a framebag stuffed full of snacks and two bottles of water which would get me as far as the first shop. I had routed myself home pretty much the same way as I’d ridden on Friday, so knew that I probably wouldn’t see anything open until Marlborough. Two bottles of water would not get me that far, not in the heat, but I also knew that I would pass close enough to Malmesbury to detour if I needed to. However it turned out my route back was slightly different, I rode through Royal Wootton Bassett rather than near it, so was able to buy some food and water to keep me going to Marlborough.

The section between Wootton Bassett and Marlborough was gorgeous. I’d not been able to see it in the dark on Friday but white horses in the sides of the hills at Broad Hinton and Hackpen hill glowed in the bright sunshine. On the Friday I had a feeling that the road between Hackpen Hill and Marlborough was nice, the twilight meant I had been able to make out silhouettes of the surrounding landscape, but it was an absolute cracker made even better by the fact it was a gentle but fast descent for the best part of 7 or 8 kilometres. More food and water in Marlborough before a quick blast along the A4 to get back into the quiet lanes across Wiltshire and Hampshire. The Bourne Valley again. Love this stretch of road. Under the A34. Dinner sat on a step in the shade by the river opposite the little Tesco in Whitchurch. Over the M3. Yet more hedge lined lanes through yet more fields. This part of the country always makes me think of Lemon Jelly record sleeves.

Picture Perfect England™.

A kestrel glides low over the field to my side before swerving across the road and through a gap in the trees to my right. Then I chased a hare along a lane a few minutes later.

Petersfield again. More food, more water. Home roads. Tired. Hot. Probably dehydrated. Actually, absolutely definitely dehydrated. Twilight. By this point I was starting to lose interest in riding, bored even. Close enough to home to just want to be there, far enough away to know it was still a couple of hours away. I plugged my earphones into my phone and hit shuffle. I pedalled on. Home roads. Autopilot. Village names got ticked off the mental list – Harting, Cocking, Graffham, Greatham, Storrington. Dark now, it was late. Even the main roads were quiet. Swerved a hedgehog. Route 1 home. Washington, Steyning, Shoreham. Head down, high gear, push pedals as hard as possible. The fast road and the cement works. A way I would never ride in the day, but 11 o’clock on a Sunday night it was OK. Tempted by the drive-thru MacDonalds, but no, cracked on. Didn’t even cross the lock gates for the quiet of Basin Road, I stuck to the coast road. Hungry. Tired. Get home, maybe stagger to the kebab shop. Then I saw the lights of the M&S shop at the all night petrol station near Hove Lagoon…

“Have you done the bike ride today?”

The (Not Quite) Midsummer 300

When I started to audax a few years back I came up with a 300km route that I planned to do on midsummer’s day – along the Sussex and southern Kent coast, then turn inland and cut across Romney Marsh over the Downs and through Canterbury to Whitstable on the north coast, and back to Brighton. The reason for choosing Whitstable as the return point is that I lived there whilst at art school in Canterbury many years ago, the first place I lived by the sea. I hadn’t got around to it though due to going to Mountain Mayhem for the last 3 years. I’m going to Mayhem again this year but because I was 190km short in France a couple of weeks ago I decided to ride the Midsummer 300 a week or so early.

The route has been tweaked a bit over the years, a mish mash of familiar roads near to home and parts of Kent audaxes (Fairies Flattest Possible 300, Man of Kent 200 and 300) further afield, with a little bit of memory lane thrown into the mix.

Route ridden: https://www.strava.com/activities/1030344156

Five Sevenths

Half way up the hill out of town I spot a bench nestled under some trees. Shade, at last. I pull over, lean my bike against one end of the bench, sit down, and take a swig of water. A few minutes earlier back down in the town a bar owner had kindly filled my bidons with ice and water. The digital display in the street outside had indicated 41 degrees. I check the Garmin, it’s 1pm and I’ve ridden 525km out of a planned 715 but I’m not sure about continuing. The heat wouldn’t be so much of a concern if I could be sure of finding water regularly but it’s Sunday afternoon in France and everything is shut. I might be okay if I was routing myself though, or even near, larger towns but I’m not. I’m using back roads as much as possible to avoid traffic. The last open shop I saw and made use of was 50 kilometres back. Since then I’ve been completely reliant on taps in cemeteries to fill my bottles until I managed to catch that last bar before it closed for the afternoon. However I’ve worked out a strategy to deal with the heat. I can eat now and sleep in the shade for a while. Then I can continue and ride longer into the night than planned when it’s cooler. There’s still a lump of hills to get over but from about 650km the route starts to tip downwards into the Dordogne valley. I should be able to do this.

I’ve got food – cheese, ham, bread, dried fruit, and somewhere in the framebag emergency energy bars – that should get me through the next 160km to Argentat where I may find an open restaurant or bar. That’s the only large town I know that is coming up. Worse case scenario is by the time I get there I will only have 30km of valley road to go to get to Mum and Dad’s house, my final destination. I can ride that far on water if I need to, or even ask my parents to drive out and stash some food under a bush somewhere.

However my rear hub is shagged and getting worse and this forces the decision to bail. If it was just two out of the three issues – heat, water, knackered freehub – then I’d continue, but all three is making hard work of it and the hub is the breaking point. It’s definitely getting worse and may not even make it as far as the end of the ride. I send a message to Mum and Dad requesting broom wagon services. I’m nearing enough to them for it to not be a complete pain in the arse to drive out to meet me. I can ride as far as the next village, about 8km along the road. I’ll find some more shade and collapse and wait.

At some point after dinner yesterday evening, at around 260km a strange noise started to emanate from the rear of the bike. I assumed it was the hub but couldn’t work out what, everything seemed alright, nothing was loose. I even checked the frame for cracks as it was quite an unnerving creaking noise, but overnight the noise ceased and whatever was going on back there faded from my mind. Now it slips when I pedal and catches when I freewheel and threatens to throw the chain into the spokes. I’ve had enough and can’t be bothered to deal with it any longer. It’s making me ride inefficiently and right now I could do with all the efficiencies I can muster. It was probably messing me about last night but I was really struggling with tiredness so wasn’t aware of it. I guess when the noises stopped something internal had finally broken and it’s steadily been getting worse through the hours. I was concentrating too hard on not falling asleep at the bars to notice.

** ** **

I leave the ferry port just after 5am and head south, a direction I will follow all day except for the occasional meander east or west to join up the southern bound roads. There is already light in the sky and I’ve ridden out of Dieppe enough times over the last four or five years that I can probably find my way by feel and instinct and without the need for lights. Slowly the world around me comes alive, sunlight gradually saturating my surroundings with colour, blacks become muted and faded tones become bright hues. The only noise is my drivechain and tyre hum mixing in with the dawn chorus.

I roll across Normandy literally and metaphorically, undulating over small hills and dipping in and out of valleys. Skirting the edge of Rouen I follow the Seine towards Evreux. It’s warm already by mid-morning and by midday my jersey is unzipped. After stopping for a picnic lunch outside Evreux I continue across endless fields of gently rippling wheat, a visual reminder if it was needed that I’ve had a headwind all day and due to simply pointing south for 700km will continue to nudge into the wind until tomorrow evening. The landscape reminds me of driving across the American Midwest, all big skies and seas of swaying green. The main difference being the church spires sticking up from small villages on the horizons. I cross main roads and motorways (something about French motorways always make me think of Julian Opie images), and occasionally drop into and climb out of river valleys, some small, some significant – Seine, L’Iton, L’Avre, Eure – and follow and cross Le Loir many times.

Between rivers the landscape isn’t changing a great deal – wheat, flat, more wheat – the passing of time and therefore distance is indicated not by changing vistas but by my shadow that has slowly crept from my right to my left. Somewhere along the way I stop for a quick coffee to perk me up and the next 20km whizz by. The caffeine spike and straight roads mean I tuck down on to the aero bars and tank along. This is the first proper ride with aero bars and they are really making a difference. Not only are they are real help in making myself small in the face of wind, but they transfer weight from my hands to my arms. Having suffered from numbness and tingling in my fingers on long rides this is great. Thankfully for the last few months I’ve been swimming and doing pilates which has made me bendy enough to be comfortable tucked down on the bars.

By mid-afternoon I hit the 200km mark, just a handful of minutes behind my fast schedule. In my pocket I have a sheet of paper with a list of place names and three sets of times; quick, medium, slow. My aim is to tick along at the fast schedule for as long as possible to amass a bit of a buffer so that things can slip to the middle schedule. This will mean I can factor in some sleep overnight. By dinner time I’m a little closer to the middle schedule as I lie on a bench in a town square watching swifts and martins dart back and forth, crisscrossing the air catching their own dinner. The heat of the day started to get to me over the last couple of hours so I’m resting for a bit so I can ride for as long as possible into the night before the inevitable happens and I have to pass out. Hopefully I can tap out a good chunk of distance before that happens. The further I can ride overnight the more chance I have of being able to rest in the afternoon tomorrow to avoid the heat.

Thirty kilometres later I’m napping in the short grass outside a cemetery where I’ve filled up with water (top tip from a French audaxer – most cemeteries will have a fresh water tap for watering flowers). I get up to leave and walk around confused as to where I left my helmet until I realise I’ve already put it on. Oh dear, this is not a good sign. I’m starting to pay for the lack of sleep on the ferry last night. Tiredness is clearly getting to me and it’s not even half past nine and the sun is still (just) above the horizon. Somewhere on this last section my rear hub started to make a weird noise.

I continue into the darkness, slowly clicking the kilometres down. Every one ridden is one closer to my destination and one less to ride tomorrow. I stop again forty minutes later when I’ve had enough of my front light being dipped too low. I can’t really see where the road goes and it’s making me ride slower than I know I could be going. The extra concentration is only adding to my tiredness and because I’m not fully awake I wait until the second time I’ve nearly ridden off the road to actually stop and sort it out. Two minutes is all it takes. Why the hell didn’t I do that half an hour earlier when I knew it was an issue? Exhaustion induced fecklessness. And I already know this won’t be the last stupidity of the night. This needs to be remembered for the Transcon. Light sorted I crack on and much faster pace with the benefit of actually being able to see where I’m going. Idiot.

Not long after this things start to get fuzzy. I cross a wide expanse of thick darkness that is the Loire, somewhere near a castle straight out of Disney, lit up at the end of an avenue to trees along the bank of the river. A sign shows Tours off to the west. All day I’ve been passing signs to large towns and cities I’ve driven through or stayed in before. Along with my shadow this has shown me that I’m working my way down France. I think to myself the last time I drove to Gagnac I stopped and stayed in a hotel in Tours. Why am I riding it non-stop again?

Then follows a dull road. Even in the dark I can tell it would be boring in daylight. It’s more kilometres passing under the wheels, keep pedalling. I cross another river, Le Cher, climb again, bloody hell I’m tired now. I pass a village square and spy a bench. Bed. Garmin says 01:11 and 365km. That’ll do, that’s 100km since dinner five or so hours ago. I lie down on the bench and drift off looking at stars pinpricking the blackness overhead. An hour of fitful sleep later I am awake and cold. It is only now I decide to put on my arm and knee warmers. Idiot. Again.

I ride on and within minutes I’m too warm and wish I hadn’t bothered with the arm warmers, or rather wish I’d bothered with them before I slept. I get comfortable on the aero bars and promptly fall asleep and nearly crash. Fucking hell. I stop in the next village and sleep on a stone step behind a car. Thirty minutes later I set off again. It’s gone four so I know there will be light in the sky in an hour and once the light returns I’ll be fine. Turns out I’m wrong and ten minutes down the road I’m falling asleep again. I decide to sack this off as a lost cause until daylight and find a comfortable looking bit of grass verge to kip down.

I wake up to light in the sky. Brilliant, this will sort me out, but I realise I’m down to half a bottle of water and have no clue as to where I am. I check the distance against my list of towns. Crap, I’m in the middle of one of the bigger gaps on the list, it could be a while before I hit anywhere large enough to have a shop. Hang on, it’s 5am, nothing is going to be open for at least two hours anyway. I might as well ride, keep moving, eventually I’ll find water. Overnight I could tell I was riding through forest and the terrain wasn’t flat but I seem to have woken up to flat fields again. This is OK, I don’t mind flat, I need to get on. I feel like I’ve lost time in the last four hours faffing about neither sleeping or riding properly, and now I’m rationing limited water which also feels like it’s slowing me up. I spot what looks like a cemetery down the road…please be a cemetery. It is! Bottles filled. One is half drunk and topped up. Six am, 410km. Forty five kilometres in 5 hours and barely any sleep. I should have just bedded down for two or three hours and ridden refreshed, rather than dicking about trying not to crash and getting cold.

Ride on, I just need to keep riding. The terrain is starting to change, I pass through a land of lakes and long straight roads. Long straight undulating roads. My drivetrain doesn’t feel right. Keep riding. Stop for a coffee. Wake up. Keep riding. I see hills in the distance. I must be getting near to hills north of Limoges. This is good, Limoges is the last city I pass before Gagnac, once past there it’s the home straight.

The large fields end and the roads wiggle and climb and drop and wiggle some more. This is definitely the start of the hills north of Limoges. I seem to only be climbing. I remember the profile of the route showed a steady inclination from about 450km. Two hundred kilometres and it’ll be predominantly downhill. Two hundred, that’s just a short audax. Crack on. It’s hot. Silly hot and the road keeps going up. I’m definitely slowing. I do some sums. No, it’s all good. I’m well ahead of the slowest possible schedule I can ride and still finish the 700 within the audax allowed time limit. Well it would be all good but my drive train really doesn’t feel right. There is definitely something very wrong with the rear hub and it is starting to piss me off.

Freewheeling into a town I spot an open bar. It makes sense to stop, sit in the shade for a while, eat properly, and rest before continuing. I stop and scan the menu. Pasta dishes for 6 euros. Perfect. The bar owner comes outside to say only food in the evening. Ah crap. He realises I’m English and starts to talk in English and I realise he’s also English. I order a drink, plug my phone into a wall socket, and ask him whether I might find food in the next 50km. Probably not. I start to consider my options…

The bar owner closes up as I’m leaving, but an English friend of the owner arrives, and unlocking my bike I can hear the owner telling him what I’m doing. Through the glass door I hear a muffled “Fuck off, that’s bullshit, you can’t fucking do that on a bike! There’s no way he’s done that.”

** ** **

A few minutes after this as I climb out of town I decide enough is enough. With less than 200km left to ride it’s a frustrating decision to make, even though I know it’s a wise one. It’s a disappointment but I’m not considering it failure, just that sometimes you have to choose your battles. This has been a massive game changer. I’ve learned a lot, proved to myself I can do more than I thought. I’ve ridden further than this before, but that was with friend and Transcon team mate Jo. I’ve ridden many long audaxes, but with manned controls and other riders around. Safety nets. This has been different, trying to ride across a country solely on my wits. Things have changed, again. Horizons have expanded yet further. I realise I’m lucky that I’ve been able to ask my parents to pick me up. However if that wasn’t an option then I would limp as far as Limoges, find a cheap hotel and wait for a bike shop to be open. Turns out that the limit of my comfort zone extends far beyond where I thought it was. I’m more than happy to ride alone into the unknown.

I think the Transcontinental is going to be the start of something rather than the culmination of what has gone before.

 

https://www.strava.com/activities/1010244528

Thanks Mum and Dad for the broom wagon, water and food.

Doorstep Epic Plus

A few years my friends Jo, George, and Oli, joined Le Club des Cinglés du Mont Ventoux. Their stories from that day led me to attempt the feat last year. Their rides that day also inspired the idea of the Doorstep Epic. I’ve toyed with the idea of having a bash at George’s particular Doorstep Epic ride – that joins all the South East climbs in the 100 Climbs books into a 285km ride – for a while. I saw that our friend Vic had ridden it last week whilst I was off riding to Wales and back, prompting me into a last minute decision to try it at the weekend. The choice to ride it a week after completing the 400km London-Wales-London struck me a tad daft, but I was feeling pretty good after LWL. I wouldn’t normally consider another big ride so quickly but with the Transcontinental Race coming I’ll have to do this day in day out so I thought “Sod it, let’s see what happens.” I also decided that it needed 20km added and an extra couple of hills to make it up to a 300km AAA audax for this season’s Super Randonneur attempt. In for a penny, in for a pound. George’s route was tweaked, a virtual brevet purchased, and route submitted for a DIY by GPS perm.

Just after 4am on Saturday morning I shut the front door behind me and pedalled off up the hill towards Devil’s Dyke. The streets were quiet except for foxes scampering down twittens and a few clubbers crawling home. Up at the Dyke skylark song mixed with the dawn chorus filled the dark sky above my head. Brighton glowed orange behind and below me. As I turned for the descent to the weald the grey blue haze to the west was diluted by the approaching day.

By the time I hit the top of Steyning Bostal a thin grey sky was temporarily stained orange and pink by strengthening sunlight. The first of the Sussex hills were done. The rest of them would have to wait until the return leg later in the day, for now I had to head north to the Surrey Hills. Fifty kilometres of rolling weald and stiff headwind through a trilogy of Greens – Dragons, Barns, Bucks – to Cranleigh to start the suite of Surrey climbs; Barhatch Lane, Coombe Lane, Coldharbour Lane, Leith Hill, White Down, Box Hill. At least two of these I don’t particularly like. On the plus side all the lanes in the Surrey hills are literally that, in the hills, sunken holloways that would protect me from the wind. It was still early, about half 7, so hopefully I could loop around them all before all the other cyclists came out to play and clogged up the lanes.

First up was Barhatch Lane. I’ve only ridden this once and to be honest I walked a fair chunk of it (I was having a particularly miserable time that afternoon). However it wasn’t as bad as I remembered it, I sat in a low gear and worked my way up it steadily, out of the saddle for the steep bits, but not going deep as I knew there were a long way to go after this and a lot more climbing. The descent from the top into Shere was lovely, speeding through a tunnel of trees and exposed roots. Coombe Lane next, a hill I’ve had a hate/hate relationship ever since I first made it’s acquaintance. Steady away again, and out of the saddle for the sharp left-hander. Annoyingly there was a car on my arse so I couldn’t swing wide and had to take the steeper inside line but second Surrey climb dealt with without fuss.

From here there was a long fast descent before throwing myself around a tight right hand junction and dumping most of the gears for a short rise onto the Ranmore Common road. The decent into Dorking was great fun on an empty road where I could use all the tarmac and chose my line. I followed the one-way system out of town onto the bottom of Coldharbour Lane. I really like this climb, my favourite of the North Downs climbs. A nice even gradient, a couple of short ramps but nothing serious, and you can big ring the top section around to Leith Hill. Darting across the cross roads on Leith I dropped down Tanhurst Lane through the bluebells and rhododendrons and around Leith Hill Wood to start the proper Leith Hill climb. Over the top and half way down the other side I cut left to double back around to Peaslake via Radnor Road. A quick stop at Peaslake Stores for a late breakfast sausage roll and to stuff a cheese straw (they’re infamous, ask a mountain biker) in a rear pocket and then headed for White Down via a twisting burrow of lanes.

Out of the second hairpin and I instantly remembered the grind that is White Down. Not only is it steep but it always goes on for longer than I ever remember. However again my legs didn’t feel too bad and there wasn’t the usual swearing through gritted teeth. On the rapid descend down the other side towards Great Bookham I check the distance and time. I was still on a 15 hour schedule which was good. Turning for Westhumble and Box Hill I came across another sneaky little climb. That’s the problem in the Surrey Hills, there are a lot of hidden climbs between the ones everyone knows. I was starting to realise that it was these draggy stealth hills between the big ones that were going to be trouble. I knew where the big ones were and knew a few minutes of effort and they were over. The little dinks and lumps in between were the things to be worried about, these were sapping the energy.

Next up was the one everyone knows – Box Hill. I don’t get the popularity of Box Hill. It’s a bit boring and the café at the top is rubbish, yet cyclists flock here. I know it was for the Olympic road race, but so was the Kingston one way system and that’s not rammed with cyclists every weekend. It’s also wide open to the wind. Over the top and my legs were complaining a bit and it felt like I was slowing. A glance at the time and some quick mental arithmetic and no, I was still on schedule. Crack on.

George had warned me that the section joining the Surrey climbs to the Kent ones was a bit dull and he wasn’t wrong. The roads themselves are pleasant enough (except the bit around Salfords) but I was back into the wind and everything seemed to be an annoying false flat. However it was the perfect section to get some food inside me ready to tackle Kent. I completely squandered this opportunity. I eat the cheese straw from my back pocket, a packet of crisps bought from a corner shop, and a handful of Jelly Babies for dessert. Not really a sensible lunch, and an error for which I would later pay.

The first Kent climb wasn’t actually in Kent but still in Surrey, and it was shit. I will happily never ride Chalkpit Lane again. It reminded me of Boxley Road further along the North Downs ridge out of Maidstone. Basically a steep hairpin bend followed by a straight steep ramp to the top. This isn’t actually dissimilar to White Down and in itself is bearable, but White Down is a quiet narrow lane buried into woodland. Chalkpit Lane is a lane in name only and clearly a popular road over the ridge for car drivers. It also carried me into the hinterland between the Downs and London. It’s all just a bit scruffy and trafficky up there for my liking. I was much happier once I’d dropped off the ridge and back outside the M25.

Next up was the back and forth and back again over the greensand ridge. Hosey Hill is a gentle introduction, nothing extreme, a gentle spin. At the top I’ve hit the 200km mark and realise I’m a bit behind schedule but not by much, fifteen minutes at most. Down the other side and around to Four Elms I started the climb of Toy’s Hill. About half way up I rapidly regret not having bothered to stop for food in the previous 80km. I was suddenly overwhelmed by the hollow faint feeling of the pre-bonk. Shit. I pulled into someone’s driveway and stared at my feet for a minute or two. Probably three. I stuffed a few Jelly Babies in my face and had a swear. I just needed to get to the top as it would then be a (very) rapid descent into Brasted where I knew there was a café. I clipped back in, swore at my stupidity again, and pedaled. Slowly.

After inhaling a panini, double espresso, and can of fizzy pop I’m back on the road. Transcon team mate Jo had been riding out to meet me and accompany me for the final part of my ride. He was just the other side of Chiddingstone in a pub waiting. By my reckoning this was about 20km away. Less than an hour on a good day. Maybe not in the state I was in. Ide Hill next, final ascent of the greensand ridge and a climb I’ve done enough times to know is nothing to be afraid of. It’s what lay beyond it that I was scared of. A short loop to take in Yorkshill.

Halfway up Yorkshill and I was looking at my feet and an inner monologue of “Pedal. You’re not fucking walking!” echoed around my head. A hundred metres later this was repeated. At the junction at the top I stopped for a few deep breaths and a word with myself. There was only about 85km to go. Just a normal ride. Plus I should have a tailwind all the way back now. Easy. I ignored the fact I had to get over the Ashdown Forest and South Downs, there was some respite before I would hit all that. I checked my phone, Jo had moved from the pub to watch the village cricket game down the road.

I flew down the Bough Beech side of Ide Hill and kept spinning as big a gear as possible, out of the saddle for the little rises. I was flying, or that’s what I told myself but was under no illusion. I knew I was being flattered by the overall downward trajectory of the landscape, I was being tipped off the Downs back into the Weald. Oh, and I had a tailwind. I passed the village sign for Wellers Town and then waited what felt like miles to pass the pub and reach the cricket green. I turned through the gate and collapsed on the grass. Jo handed me a scotch egg.

After fifteen minutes had passed and an unlucky batsman had been caught out (actually to be fair he gifted it to the fielder) it was time to get moving again. The fifteen hour schedule was lost by then, but sixteen was still possible. The hills of the Ashdown loomed to the south and this would be next. Being a stupid route catching all the 100 Climbs hills there would be a short pointless going the wrong way just to come back to where you were already bit to take in Kidd’s Hill. Before I got that far though I had to get over Black Hill. Well, the summit is Black Hill but it’s about three climbs that gently and not so gently undulate from the floor of the Weald up to the roof of Sussex. The last two times I’d ridden this had been respectively on 100 and 200km AAA audaxes. In winter. In the dark. It was nice to ride it in warm daylight for a change, and despite being further into a longer ride it felt easier than the last two times. Not fast but not painful. It was good to have Jo as a rabbit to chase and his wheel to tuck in behind over the top of the forest towards Chuck Hatch and Kidd’s Hill. Known locally as The Wall Kidd’s Hill is one I generally try to avoid. In fact I couldn’t remember the last time I’d ridden it. Straight into the lowest gear at the bottom (no point pretending I was going to use any of the others) and slowly twiddled the pedals to the top. That was the second last hill. Just the Beacon to go.

A quick stop at the petrol station in Nutley was required to refuel one last time. Going #fullaudax I sat on the forecourt with a can of coke, wrapping chicken bites in cheese slices. Dinner of champions! I was back on familiar territory so knew the route from here was predominantly downhill until we hit the South Downs. Having Jo to talk to also helped as I suspect if I had still been soloing my thoughts would have been slumping into the realms of ‘this is stupid’ and ‘where’s the nearest train station?’.

Slugwash. Hundred Acre. Streat. Home lanes. Autopilot. The South Downs reared up in front of us. Deep breath, last hill. Done it loads of times. Like all of the day’s hills it wasn’t the fastest I’ve ever got up it but nor was it the slowest ascent. I’ve had some horrors on the Beacon in the past and this didn’t get filed in that particular back catalogue. The sixteen hours mark was hit as I crested the summit. Not quite home but near enough. I could almost see my house from up here and it was downhill all the way home (well, mainly downhill). Given that I’d ridden London to Wales and back again the weekend before, and this ride had accumulated almost 5000 metres of climbing, I’ll take over sixteen hours.

Thanks George for dreaming up such a stupid ride. I’m not sure who is the bigger idiot, you for thinking it up in the first place, or me for deciding what it really needed was extra distance and hills. Also thanks Jo for riding out to Kent to keep me company and shepherd me home.

Ride numbers and stuff: https://www.strava.com/activities/973985997

April TCR Prep

1,570km, 16,300 metres of climbing

The month started with the Reilly Cycleworks TCR frameset being built up into a complete bike by Rule 5 Bikes. A few days later I rode it to Bristol in a day for the Bespoked Handmade Bike Show. Then I rode it home again.

A 200km ride around Normandy on Easter Saturday as it’s been a while since I’ve popped over to Dieppe on the overnight Newhaven ferry. Good practice for riding on the wrong side of the road after hardly any sleep. Then the annual Spring Classic ride with mates around the lanes, farm tracks, and bridleways of Sussex on Easter Monday.

A not meant to be all day but turned into an all day South Downs cyclocross ride with a long pub lunch (if crisps count as lunch).

The month finished with the 400km London-Wales-London audax.

Very little commuting other than a few recovery spins. Think I managed one swim.

Various brackets, plugs, and bits of cable purchased so I can set up the aero bars with dynamo lights and USB charger.