In Search of Fresh Air

This ride came about from the need to do a substantial solo test before the Transatlantic Way race in Ireland on June 17th. Through late winter and early Spring I had been struggling to ride on my own and constantly craved company on most of my rides which was the opposite to the same time last year when I was in good form and was happy knocking out solo miles.

I rode the first half of the 400km 3 Down audax with Tom Wilson before he peeled off and headed further south to his parents house. This was a bit like an addict coming off heroin except I was weaning myself onto riding solo. This didn’t exactly go to plan as I ended up with a couple of fast riders for stretches but I could feel a little change as my mind started to wander and my legs did their thing.

I made it home from this ride in good form and straight away knew what I needed to do next. I wanted to do two 400km plus days back to back, exactly what I would need to do in Ireland if I was to challenge the podium. I wanted a ride with some purpose and not simply to ride two big loops to and from the house. After a few options I took Alan Bruce up on his offer to ride to the Lake District to a house near Penrith half a dozen club members would be staying in for a long training weekend.

Initially I was a little worried as the ride was closer to 500km one way but this soon settled as I started to make plans. These plans included trying to arrive at a suitable time so not to disturb my hosts plans or sleep. Based on my previous rides I calculated I could average 25kmph including stops which meant a 20 hour ride and a definite ride through the night. I decided to leave at 10am on Wednesday morning for an early Thursday morning arrival in time for breakfast.

With longer solo rides I normally use a known race or audax route. The problem with heading north west was avoiding the A5. To do so it would be a straight shot north into the Peak district followed by the Yorkshire dales and then a climb into the Lake District. I felt this was a bit of a stretch so opted for the fastest route north west towards Manchester. I had been on the A5 before on a ride to Holyhead and it was a pain in the ass but I had limited choices.

I refitted my 50-34 compact ring to my bike as I knew there was quite a bit of climbing and I would need help as I also had some extra weight on the bike with aerobars and also an Apidura saddle pack. I travelled light enough for the distance carrying only the essential, enough clothes and still having space for food. I have learned a lot this year in regards of what I need to wear at certain temperatures and I have also been able to calculate actual temperatures based on the effect of wind chill. I knew I was going to have a head wind all the way up so I was wrapped up well from the start. The general effort put into the cycling on long days is minimal so there is little risk of sweating or overheating.

On the morning of departure I felt relaxed after a solid sleep and a good breakfast. I had also gone through my checklist the night before and I had everything ready to go so no morning panic. I was looking forward to getting out of London to get some fresh air through my lungs as well as experience the peace and quiet of the countryside. As I got out through Barnet and South Mimms I hit my first nice stretch of road that meandered between fields of bright yellow rapeseed. The sun made these fields glow and I decided it was a good opportunity for a quick snap. Camera out, not turning on, what the hell, forgot the battery. I was so pissed. I had gone through my list thoroughly and had everything ready to go and now felt like I had forgotten the most important thing. I also do not use a smart phone so had no photo taking machines for the rest of my trip. I toyed with the idea of trying to buy a battery in a bigger town or a disposable camera but unless something became easily available I would not be going looking for it.

Anyway, I soon recovered my mood and continued along the nice stretch of road and had a little Johnny Cash start up in my head which invigorated me for all of 5 minutes before I was brought back to reality by the noise and dirt of the M25. I stopped just before entering St Albans to make a minor cleat adjustment and on the way out the other side I realised how strong the wind was and that I was going to be cycling into the belly of the flatulent beast for the best part of 20 hours. This didn’t deter me as I wanted a good test. Ireland was going to be windy so it was simply a matter of adjusting my effort to suit and not worry too much about the speed. It’s very easy to push hard and get carried away only to burn out a few hours later.

I had broken the ride down into 100-130km sections and my first stop would be Towcester at roughly 100km.I spent the next 20km of the ride on the A5 which was horrible and also included the never ending roundabouts of Milton Keys which soon felt like ground hog day as I passed through around a dozen. I also had a schedule in my head for the entire ride and despite the headwind I made it to Towcester 20 minutes ahead. A pasty and a sausage roll followed by a couple of texts to let people know I was safe and I was back on the road.

I decided I needed some respite from the A5 so wandered onto a quiet B road after the service station and continued to make my way north west as best I could. My mood quickly changed and despite not making much direct progress I was happy to glide along the quiet roads. I ended up riding across a long stretch of dirt road and decided I’d had enough and made my way back to the A5.

The next 130km into Uttoxeter was pretty uneventful however the roads did get infinitely nicer north of Rugby as I was now off the A5. I also rode through my first hailstorm during which I thought about pulling over for some shelter but I toughed it out and it passed quickly. I ended up having a further 5 on the ride up but none of them lasted very long and I stayed relatively warm and dry.

A few of you may know about some of the food that I have had to eat on long distance rides (Little Chef, KFC, McD’s in one day) and now I am obsessed with Greggs. It has everything I need. Fat, sugar, probably a little protein and it doesn’t make me feel heavy. It simply goes through my stomach and straight to my legs as fuel. Unfortunately I didn’t find one here and anyway it was dinner time so I felt something more substantial was in order and I found a pizza place at the north side of the town.

It was a short enough stop and I even managed to save two slices of pizza which a stored in my saddle pack and knew they would come in handy on the long night I had ahead. The next stop was Manchester and it was now dark so there was even less scenery to see with Stoke on Trent being the inescapable highlight of this stretch. I also had a van driver stop with me as I made it clear he was too close when passing. I had been tucked on my aerobars when he passed but now that we were both pulled over and I was standing upright I think he realised I wasn’t a weedy little cyclist and I could see in his eyes his aggressive plans had changed. I got the usual foul mouthed rant and he was soon back in his van without me getting the opportunity to ask him why he stopped so abruptly.

I arrived in Manchester at around midnight having done just shy of 350km and still on schedule. I was ready to eat again but wanted a short stop so ducked into a 24hour filling station which still had sandwiches left and a hot chocolate machine. I also ate my 2 spare slices of pizza and was soon on the road to my next stop in Lancaster. Navigating Manchester had cost me sometime and upon getting back on the open roads I was around 30 minutes behind schedule. Lancaster was my next stop and my only pre planned food. I knew I would be arriving there in the early hours of the morning and so I had checked to see if they had any 24 hour fast food delicatessens. Unfortunately not so I had to settle for a Mc Donald along with all the students that were finishing off their night out.

The staff in McDonalds were a bit bemused by my attire and of course in eventually transpired where I had come from and where I was going. One didn’t know that there were other roads from London apart from the motorway and the others just thought I was mad. Before leaving I put every item of clothing I had on which included double leggings and my prized but hideous looking down puffer jacket.

I had 80km to go and knew the worst of the climbing was coming but my spirits were high and I set off into the dark silence. I got to the top of a substantial climb only to find the road closed.  It was now 4:30am and the sun was starting to come up as I wandered north to try and get back on route. A quick check of my Garmin showed the temperature to be minus 3 degrees Celsius. It didn’t feel that cold as I was well wrapped up with only a little numbness in my toes I was quite content and continued to make solid progress.

Up until this point I hadn’t seen anything substantial to take a photo of but just as I turned off a busy road into the Lake District there was a mother swan sitting on her nest on the bank with the cob in the water and both surrounded by a white frost. I immediately regretted not having my camera but I managed to take a mental picture and it’s still there.

The next 45km stretch was the hardest of the entire ride. The road got very rolling and had a heavy surface. It was more of a mental struggle as I was now surrounded by hills and constantly wondered which one I would have to climb and when it would come. My speed was right down to around 24kmph average moving but I took my time and kept composed knowing that the climb had to be soon. I eventually crested Kirkstone Pass just as the sun peaked over a taller hill to the east of me and I was a bit disappointed and confused, ‘was that it’? I then went to take a drink from my bottles only to find both of them frozen and I could do nothing but laugh and be happy that in such conditions I was still comfortable. A fast and brave descent left me TT’ing the final 5km into my finish and I was greeted by Marc, Jonathan and Alan.

I’m always a little hyper after a long ride and didn’t feel like sleeping so after some food and a shower I got changed into some clothes Alan had brought up for me and we went for a drive into Penrith to get some food.

My plan was to rest for as long as I needed and get back on the road. This was my Ireland test and this is exactly what I would be doing, maximum mileage on minimum sleep. I snoozed for a few hours, tried to get my kit dried and we headed to the pub for lunch. And then it started to snow. Not just little bitty snow, this was big bad ‘you’re not getting out of here’ snow. It didn’t lie on the road for a while but when we looked out over the fields to the east of the pub they were white already.

Within the hour the roads were slippery and slushy and I knew I was here for the night. I considered the option of getting the train form Penrith to Manchester but I didn’t want to lose my mileage nor did I want to get wet on the ride up and have to sit on the train for two hours and get cold. In the end I stayed the night with the hope the weather would have cleared in the morning but an 8am visit to the local shop confirmed that Kirkstone Pass was still closed. If I really wanted to I believe I could have cycled out but the risk of injury or accident just wasn’t worth it especially on a training ride.

In the end I said goodbye to my hosts at around 11am and headed for Penrith with dry clothes and a pack full of gingerbread care of Alan and Charlotte. I decided to train to Manchester Airport meaning I would lose around 170km of my ride but would also not have to worry about navigating around the city during the day. With the ride now shorter I upped my efforts a little and decided to do 2 150km+ stretches with only one break. I also assumed I was going to get some help from a tailwind but this never materialised and it was more of an easterly.

It was 4pm before I got off the train and out of the station and I was quickly back on busy roads and in a bad mood so at the first opportunity I got off my route onto the b roads and wandered south east back towards London. I also managed to find a Greggs shortly after I started and decided to stock up as there hadn’t been any food available on the train. The roads were great up until the point I had to navigate Stoke on Trent again which was just a never ending maze of busy residential streets.

I reached Hinckley at around 2130 after 155km and dropped into Asda for the most calorific sandwich I could find, a muller rice and a couple of bananas. The next stretch of the ride was another hard section and it took me sometime to find my momentum. I felt sluggish and eventually had to go for an au natural number 2 to lose some weight and general stodginess. There was a distinct lack of large leaves or toilet roll in the area I had chosen and eventually I had to use both parts of a banana. The inside got eaten and the skin got, well, the skin got ‘used’. I was now the Bear Grylls of Warwickshire.

It was now dark and I knew I had the A5 coming up again unless I wanted to wander through the back roads and extend the distance of my ride. I rode the A45 south out of Rugby and found it fast and quiet therefore I stayed on it until it joined the A5 into Towcetser and I made the decision to hunker down on my bars and give whatever I had left for the final 100km dash home. I stayed tucked low with some Daft Punk pushing me along and before I knew it I was out the back of Milton Keynes with the next stop being Dunstable. Again this was an uneventful stretch but I felt good and focused on keeping the food going in and the power coming out.

As I entered St Albans I began to ride on roads I knew and it was a little relief but I was never really struggling anyway as I kept the head down and powered home and got in the door at 0430 on Saturday morning meaning I had notched up almost 850km since Wednesday morning.

All in all the ride was a successful test with the only negative effect being that I have been humming ’Jingle Bell Rock’ ever since. I would like to have been able to get out of the Lake District a day earlier but that was more or less out of my control. I was comfortable throughout the ride with only a couple of short bad patches and all my kit performed well.

With Ireland looming on June 17th I am under no illusion what I need to do if I plan to compete with the fastest guys and I feel as if I am as ready as I can be. There is a good peak of form on the way and I am going to have home advantage. It’s going to be a great race no matter what the outcome but I make no bones about the fact that I am going there to win. It’s not quite all or nothing but it would be nice to have it all this year especially after the hell I went through in Paris.

Distance: 846km

Total ride time: 35 hours 40 minutes

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