A jolly 24 hour bike ride from Chester to DartmoorChallenges August 8, 2016
This blog pretty much wrote itself whilst on the saddle. After all – I had 24 hours to think about it!
It was one of my few bike challenges wherein I didn’t crash and there was very little drama to report. I’m going to put this down to learning a thing or two rather than chance. I had simply set the date (else it would never happen), but by the time Sunday 31st July came into orbit, I was hardly in the challenge mindset. In fact, I was mowing dad’s garden lawn just a couple of hours prior – hardly putting my feet up…
24 hours later I would be battling rain and the most soulless British landscape I’ve ever encountered on the bike. Let me also remind you that I’m not really a cyclist. I cycle almost entirely to train for expeditions, and the discovery (after the challenge) that two of my brake pads were upside down pretty much speaks for itself.
My aim was really just to get as far as possible in the 24-hour time period. But I needed somewhere to aim for to give some sort of visualisation: if we don’t have a goal, how do we know when we’ve got there? So, rather than coming-a-cropper in Norfolk with trains once a leap year, I wanted to visit somewhere I hadn’t been before – Cornwall ticked the box, but going across Dartmoor National Park to get there would prove a foolish oversight. I mean … they do train the Royal Marines there for a reason!
I planned to cycle through the night whilst supposedly more alert and awake, rather than drifting into the land of nod. Before something like this I would usually try to ‘sleep bank’ where you load up on extra sleep to compensate. Prior commitments prevented this, and for good measure I also had really bad DOMS (i.e. muscle soreness) from hiking around the Lake District with rocks in my rucksack a few days prior. I shoved it to the back of my mind when the timer started – it was too late to change anything anyhow.
Leaving home to head south was unceremonious and within a couple of hours of cruising down flat country lanes I was starting to think: “Hell, this is going to be a LONG day!”. Now the proud owner of a Garmin Edge 810, i.e. a sat-nav, it should have been as easy as following a line on the map … or so I thought. I had a small Osprey rucksack with waterproofs, thermals (just in case), wallet, camera, phone charger, spare inner tubes, spare chain, multi tool, chain tool, cable ties, tyre levers, pump, head-torch, a small bike lock, sun cream (honest) and spare batteries.
Once again I would be solo and unsupported. I have few friends mad enough to take on such a feat, and doing it this way means only I can let myself down. Only one bike can break. And on Cho Oyu in three weeks, I’ll have a strong team around me, but none of them can take my footsteps, over and over, for me. And I sure did feel alone once the impending darkness smothered me.
Fortunately, the scarce traffic of a Sunday evening was a good call. Apart from the hum of spinning wheels, the roads were quiet and entrancingly silent, until the bellow of a van horn startled me. Then it happened again. Only then did I realise my rear bike lights had failed. Damn! I had tested them beforehand, too. Bizarrely, tapping them hard brought the faulty circuit boards back to life, but for the next six hours I was turning around regularly to hit them before the bonnet of an articulated lorry did.
Through the artificial haze of street-lights, I found myself gazing blankly into glowing living room windows (from a distance, don’t worry!) and dreaming I was joining them for a Sunday Roast, a spot of tea and box-set of Downton Abbey… but I knew that in a few hours they would wake up having learned nothing about themselves. After 60 miles or so I was passing through the historic town of Ironbridge. Old Victorian buildings, flood-lit archways and a weird chill in the air gave it a special but eerie ambience – no offence to the local residents as I’m sure it’s lovely in daylight … but as a long hill crawled through a pitch-black forest like something out of Harry Potter, I was standing up on the pedals anxious to get out of there. I had programmed my Garmin to tell me off if I exceeded 150bpm to keep the intensity low – and now it was practically effing and blinding at me.
Dark and twisting roads lulled me into the familiar feeling of sleep deprivation; my eyes drifting into gormless trances, shuddering them open again before the bike itself drifted off the road entirely. This rhythmic daze repeated every few seconds. “Not now!” I cursed aloud.
I had been there before on the Chester2Chamonix cycle two years ago, and it’s quite frightening when nothing can stimulate you. Focusing hard on the head-torch beam just metres ahead gave me one swine of a migraine. If just for a few seconds, sweeping downhills literally blew my eyes open; but at such a speed, playing Twister with a rogue Badger was a fair possibility.
I had loaded the bike with enough fuel to get to my first checkpoint: Worcester, at 100 miles. As far as organisation went, this was about it. I had 2.5 litres of water, isotonic tablets, 2 bananas, a Soreen Malt Loaf and a Mule Bar flapjack thing to see me through. But what I really needed was coffee. Lots of coffee… and I was a kid at Christmas when the planned petrol station was open for business.
“You’re out a bit late aren’t ya mate?” the worker laughed, as I downed a double-shot large soya cappuccino and a Boost bar, topped up water and posted social media updates. I had no time to waste, and was ready to clip and go off again when two marked police cars and a van pulled up suddenly beside me.
“Here we go….” I thought, half expecting them to test me for some sort of illicit substance. The officer caught my puzzled look and laughed: “Nothing to worry about kid, just calling in for a brew!”.
Barring the hoots of owls and screeching of foxes, the next few hours were entirely silent; the town centres now devoid of drunken revellers. I put my MP3 player on full blast in my pocket and singing along did wonders to keep me focused whilst badgers galloped across the road like giant rabbits. I had switched to my focus to music and trying to spin the legs faster, hoping an elevated heart-rate would waken me a little. By the time I passed through the village of ‘Astley’ this strategy had even inspired a rendition of Never Gonna Give You Up… (albeit never to be repeated).
Birds sang. The milkman chugged past. Roads got smoother, the ground flatter, and the pace picked up. The roads here were a joy to ride – by comparison, Cheshire was closer to the pot-holed dirty streets of Kathmandu. Throughout the ride I had been working just one hour at a time. Obviously, thinking you have almost fourteen hours to go is a bit grim, but thinking you have twenty minutes until completing your next hour is easier to stomach than the whole cake. It was as simple as spinning my legs until daylight, right? Besides finishing that was all I had to look forward to.
I wasn’t disappointed with the most amazing sunrise, like an aurora of fire, and suddenly life felt worth living again. With my peripheral vision now extended beyond a white dot on tarmac, I could spurt out all sorts of prose and descriptive writing as if I was venturing through the spectacular Karakoram Highway on a Raleigh Chopper … but I’m afraid Gloucester and Bristol is what it is.
My legs felt strong, my mind relaxed, my average pace reasonable, and my heart-rate comfortably low. Striking such a balance only comes from practice – pace it incorrectly and you risk blowing yourself a giant raspberry before you’ve finished.
There’s always a psychological shift when you hit the halfway point. My head was running all sorts of wacky calculations to work out how far I may get in the remaining time, but mostly my focus was spent monitoring the A-road ahead as morning lorries roared past leaving me shuddering. The various suburbs brought me to the Spar of a tiny village – ten miles short of my planned Greggs breakfast at Keynsham, but I was challenged for momentum. I needed the coffee now or I would lose time. Instead of lugging food around I would pick it up en-route when I stopped for water. Everything weighs something. Egg and bacon sandwiches and caramel flapjack weren’t ideal but down it went.
“Your tracker isn’t working!” screamed the texts. I should have known better than to let mum follow me on a tracker, which sometimes drops out to GPS problems. There were a few surprise hills as I passed through Wells and Glastonbury, where I could only wonder why they hosted such a popular music festival in the middle of bloody nowhere. In the heat and dry breeze, the rucksack stuck to my cycling jersey like a wet sponge.
Rolling hills, rivers, sleepy villages, road signs and farming countryside pretty much looked identical by now; merged into a blur of boredom. I can’t remember much of what I saw or heard. I was kept busy from a constant vigilance of the road ahead, monitoring speed and heart-rate, maintaining a good rhythm, hydration, energy levels, route and making amusement from the most random of things. A farmer shouted some encouragement but I’m afraid I couldn’t have understood the accent even if I wasn’t half-asleep.
Before I knew it I was almost 75% through. And soaked, too. I stopped caring about time: the calculations became a nuance. If my legs were fine this far then I knew I’d manage the rest. Fatigue had never been a worry, but flaring up the tendons in my knees definitely had. After trying to negotiate an army of traffic and unforgiving roundabouts, my final main stop was a slight detour into the rainy town of Taunton, Somerset.
I was lagging again. Too many carbs can leave you nauseous so a chicken salad sandwich hit the spot, at the cost of a cold and anxious wait in the queue of Costa Coffee with people faffing and the clock ticking. I was like a bear with a sore head by now. By the time my burnt latte arrived I took one sip and walked straight back to the bike. Wasting coffee?! I must have been determined…
Mind and body started playing tricks on each other: creating symptoms that (hopefully) weren’t even real. I just had to hold it together. My coaching friend Chris often refers to ‘the Chimp’, i.e. giving a name to the critical voice on our shoulders telling us that we’re going to fail or that we cannot do something. In my last post I wrote about ‘throwing things overboard’ but one visualisation I use during endurance challenges is to imagine myself slapping the ‘Chimp’ in the head with a banana. Don’t knock it til’ you’ve tried it!
The final hours though, were still hell. One final petrol station topped me up with coffee to get me through. Three and a bit hours was nothing. I was generally intact and my backside not saddle sore (thanks Ste for the chamois cream tip!). Stupidly, my route took me through the gridlocked centre of Exeter – at rush hour. Annoyingly I must have lost almost an hour and probably another ten miles.
Soon after this I had entered Devon. Most people conjure fond Summer images of beaches and ice cream, but I may as well have been wearing a paper Pick’n’Mix bag instead of a waterproof jacket. After Cullompton I was on the edge of Dartmoor National Park and back on open country roads, giving my best to hit 300 miles. Sadly, my clutch had burnt out, and once the hills started, the rest went too. But I was on the home straight, or so I thought. Stunning scenery helped pass the time until the low cloud shrouded everything. I knew I could hang on until I got there: wherever ‘there’ would turn out to be.
I don’t mind hills. Especially going down them. But as each rise appeared, this fiercely bleak expanse just seemed to go on, and on, and on. The rain lashed down. Higher above sea level it only got a whole lot worse. I could taste hair gel from two days earlier dripping down my cheeks. My last snacks had worn off completely. My body wasn’t letting me cycle faster, so I was crawling uphill at an average of 6mph. I had nothing left but couldn’t even be bothered to stop. “Only an hour to go – that’s nothing” I told myself. The hill fog clagged in, and I was trying to get as many last minute miles as I could. Relentless slopes kept appearing, and no high point ever seemed to emerge through the pea-soup visibility. There was no shelter – unsurprisingly, nobody lived up there – and winds swirled across in every direction of the grey expanse. One final effort brought me to 6:48pm. The timer stopped. The tracker stopped. I was DONE. Almost…
6:48pm – complete!
I texted my mate Paul, whom I was staying with, to let him know I had fallen short but was on my way. Really, I had no idea how far I had left. My mobile phone was so wet I couldn’t use it, and phone signal was too poor to call anyone. A week later I still have bright patches on the screen where water has seeped underneath and damaged it. It was quite frankly, ridiculous. A signpost said fourteen miles to the nearest village – and I knew that was still miles from Paul. I’d had enough now. Horizontal rain, even if warm, had filled puddles in my shoes. The wind threw me left and right until I just power-screamed to release some frustration. Nobody would have heard me anyway.
I arrived in Princetown about 90 minutes later and staggered into the nearest pub. Struggling to walk in a straight line and shivering, they must have thought I’d had one too many. I could hardly speak.
“How far to ______ (Paul’s house)?” I slurred.
“We’ll sort you a lift” they said instantly, concerned, clearly realising I had a fair way to go and probably wouldn’t make it – or maybe hoping I’d just sit there drinking ale by the fire all night.
Paul had never seen me in such a state. Protein powder and peanut butter on toast was just what the doctor ordered, and having some friendly banter after twenty-six hours of your own crap jokes was a real blessing. Paul has become a very close mate and supporter during my challenges over the years, and it was great to finally visit his peaceful corner of this beautiful and vast National Park, whatever the weather.
The crux of the challenge was probably the seven-hour train journey home the following day. No kidding. Everything seems to annoy you. Every screaming child seems to sit near you. Back at Chester I had eight miles to cycle home and stretch the legs. I stayed up till 2am, strangely wide awake and unscathed barring sore knees, heavy legs and occasional sharp hand cramps from my handlebars vibrating.
I was quickly disappointed not to reach my personal goal of 300 miles. I had to stop the thought instantly and remind myself that the primary goal was to cycle for 24 hours without hurting myself. I achieved that goal, therefore I was successful. Anything else was a bonus. The problem perhaps with setting goals for visualisation is they rarely turn out how we imagine them and so we wrongly deem ourselves “unsuccessful”.
This challenge was almost as spontaneous as popping to the shop for a newspaper… I just wish I hadn’t cycled to Devon for a sodding newspaper! All things considered, lots has been learned that will be put to good practice. The best thing I have taken from this was my mental resilience and how well conditioned my body is. What an amazing thing to feel right now. All the time I’m learning to dig out deeper and deeper reserves, and use more strategies for endurance that I can practice down here – ready for when I need them to suffer and achieve on one of the worlds’ highest peaks in a few weeks time.
Thank you to Westgrove Group for making these challenges possible. A special big thank you in this blog to Paul Arnold for making me so welcome on t’mooer, to Viewranger for spreading the word and use of their technology, Edge Cycleworks Chester and Ideal 365 for the gear, and also to Simon Lewis and Colin Wallace. They’ve been right behind my challenges and avidly sharing my posts so I felt a thanks was overdue : )
- Miles: 268
- Time: Have a guess?!
- Avg moving pace: 13.3mph
- Calories: 5,828
- Avg cadence: 76
- Avg HR: 120bpm
- Steepest climb: 25%
- Height gained: Hmm. Strava says 12,426ft. My Garmin (with a barometric altimeter) says 15,374ft. I’ll let you choose!